Playing the EU game: complicity or getting your way?

My blog last week got picked up by British Influence, a pro-EU pressure group, who asked if they could re-post it on their website. Off the back of that, I got drawn into a Twitter exchange with Iron Lad, a self-professed libertarian and UKIP supporter. Suffice to say that we didn’t agree on much, as we slid quickly into the ‘who funds you‘ argument.

One of the difficulties with Twitter is that there’s no room to expand on points, so the scope for mis-communication is very high and there was certainly some of that going on. What was particularly striking was the impact of pre-dispositions.

Iron Lad clearly doesn’t trust the EU at all: he sees it as a corrupt vehicle for self-interested actors to force the UK to do things against its interest, to serve some narrow elite (materially and politically). As such, anything to do with the EU has to be handled with kid gloves and deep suspicion.

The starting point for him was my comment that British politicians pay a price for not playing the EU game or internalising its logic. Iron Lad read this as “Stupid British politicians, why have you not successfully indoctrinated your public?”

This is not at all what I meant.

Instead, I was suggesting that British politicians have not managed the interface between the national and the European levels at all well, albeit for understandable reasons. ┬áDomestic politics still sees ‘Europe’ as distant and other-ly, so the natural tone of debate in the UK is one of remoteness and the UK as an outsider, trying to be heard (Steve Hynd’s blog talks of another aspect of this). European interactions thus become opportunities to score domestic points, and are dressed in domestic frames. given how successful the UK has actually been – in securing market liberalisation, encouraging the rule of law, pushing on enlargement – this is doubly ironic.

Thus Theresa May’s trip to Brussels today is entirely domestic in orientation: free movement is a problem for the UK, so the EU should change. Doubtless, it will be presented in more collective tones, but its representation in the media will be that this is self-serving, particularly when placed in the bigger context of British discourse on exit.

Let’s contrast that with the French. They are no less ‘awkward’ than the British, have blocked at least as much as the UK over the years and have been generally a pain (cf CAP reform). However, French politicians made an early decision that the best way to secure French interests was to pursue them through a European frame. Thus French resistance is presented as caring about Europe and its values, not as France fighting for itself.

This doesn’t make the French any less interested in protecting their national interest or identity: a quick trip across the Channel would show that. Likewise, I assume that Iron Lad wouldn’t argue that the UK’s close military and intelligence-sharing relationship with the US means that the UK doesn’t protect its core interests in those fields.

However, we find the UK locked into a mind-set closer to Iron Lad’s than to mine. I have no agenda in saying that the UK should play the EU game, beyond that of seeing other member states doing just that and benefiting from it. By building up trust and respect as a reliable negotiating partner, the UK could secure even more than it already does, and more people might see that European integration is not a cabal for the few, but a negotiated space for many (maybe even most) to secure benefits, both diffuse and specific.

Of course, you can’t fit that all in a tweet.