Respecting voters’ ‘mistakes’: The EU and euroscepticism

I’m just back from Montreal, where I was invited by the EU Centre of Excellence at the Université de Montréal and McGill University to participate in a roundtable on the European elections. My plan was simple: to go and talk about how well eurosceptic parties of different stripes had done, but how they were likely to be limited in their impact by internal and external pressures and how all of this left the EP and the EU with a challenge of engaging with something they could probably continue to ignore.


Montreal’s got views, and I do too, apparently

It didn’t work quite like that though.

As guest of honour, former EP President Klaus Haensch, had been invited to open proceedings with a longer speech. This speech did – a bit unfortunately – underline some of the issues that I wanted to discuss.

Haensch presented eurosceptics as a rather homogenous group: ‘populists and demagogues’, in his words. Their electoral success might have given them seats, but there was nothing to be done with them, since they lack both the spirit of compromise and a constructive attitude to debate. Instead, for groups like UKIP or the FN, ‘sabotage’ was their approach. If there was to be any rapprochement, then sceptics would have to change, to meet the pro-EU majority.

He also talked about the popular dimension of integration. At various points, he highlighted how people are wrong in their thinking. Thus, the democratic deficit doesn’t exist, because the EU is an International Organisation, not a state; people said the eurozone couldn’t survive, but it has. Most importantly, the myth that the EU runs member states and tells them what to do was just that, a myth: in the case of the eurozone crisis, it was the member states that did all the work, not the institutions.

Taken together, Haensch’s line was that ‘voters had made a mistake, and not for the first time’ and it was the job of the EU and national governments to sort the voters out. Without proactive communication by governments, there was the risk of following the British and French examples, where governments had not responded to the crisis of confidence (in the EU and in democracy more generally) and so had been punished electorally.

It was rather hard to know where to begin.

To be very clear, this should not be taken as an ad hominem attack on Haensch – who had many thoughtful points to make elsewhere in his contributions – but rather as emblematic of a more general failure to understand the present situation. Certainly, I have heard similar thoughts expressed by other individuals associated with the EU, but this event was a trigger for some further reflection on my part.

With the benefit of some time (and sitting in airport departure lounges), I would respond with three points of my own.

Firstly, beliefs matter. Even if ‘research shows’ something is true or not true, then that remains largely irrelevant (in terms of political action, at least) if people think differently. Consider how some politicians have tried to use research to show that free movement of people improves overall economic performance: that does not square with how many people understand it.

To brush off peoples’ concerns, by saying “you’re wrong, because you don’t understand” is at best patronising and at worst an active threat to democratic participation. At the very least, the discourse should be framed as “you and I have different opinions of this issue, so let’s sit down and discuss why that is and how we can find a way through.”

Secondly, actions matter. As I’ve noted before, there is no ‘euroscepticism’, but rather many different motivations and ideological positions that lead to voting for parties with critical opinions of the EU, or some aspect thereof. Therefore, we must not think of ‘eurosceptics’ as a group, or as ‘meaning’ any one thing, since it is very many different things.

However, whatever the reasons behind peoples’ voting, they still voted (which is more than most did). When a Parliament finds that a quarter of its members have some kind of problem with the work (or even existence) of that Parliament, then to say that those members have to change is blinkered in the extreme. It was telling that Haensch said the sceptics lacked a spirit of compromise, but then followed by insisting that they were the ones who had to change. As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words, and any effort to find a constructive engagement has to begin from a recognition of one’s own short-comings.

In this, the central problem is that too many people have made the logical error of thinking that just because sceptics do not have a viable alternative model for European inter-state cooperation, that therefore the EU model must be the right one. As I’ve found myself noting frequently of late, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks the EU is perfect exactly as it is, but I also find I meet few ‘insiders’ who seem prepared to countenance more involved debate with critical voices.

The third point to be made is that we have a tension at the moment between majoritarian and non-majoritarian models. For the former, the logic that the Spitzenkandidat from the largest EP group should be the one put forward for Commission president essentially means that it will always be either the EPP of S&D candidate. This contrasts with the generally non-majoritarian approach of the EP as a consensus-builder, where the multiplicity of offices mean that all can have something to show for their efforts.

The problem here is that neither model works for eurosceptics. The entire Spitzenkandidat process has passed them by, with neither candidates nor any interest in supporting the eventual nominee. As a result, they fall out of the consensus, just as they do in the normal run of things in the Parliament.

The paradoxical difficulty here is that the Union and the EP have been very good at building coalitions and consensus, but they still have to recognise the limits to their model: the structural and permanent exclusion of some sections of opinion is a genuine problem or process, quite aside from the substantive issues in hand.

The argument here is not to try and ‘convert’ all sceptics into hard-core europhiles, but rather to at least to hold out a hand and offer the possibility of genuine and substantial interaction. Some sceptics will never change their minds, and that’s fine, because at least the Union will have tried, and in trying it will be possible to bring back in some of the moderate forms of scepticism.

If this doesn’t happen, then the problem will get worse, just as it has with each European election since Maastricht.

Moreover, those people how bothered to vote for sceptic parties because they dislike the EU will see that their efforts to express unhappiness ignored, with their parties making no impact on things. That will make those voters more likely to think that there is no point in voting for anyone, since it doesn’t make any difference. With that in mind, I would be not at all surprised to see turnout dropping once more in 2019.

Hanesch finished his speech with a French saying: ‘there’s nothing more permanent than a temporary solution.’ He was right to identify that one of the strengths of the EU has been its fluidity and adaptability. Witness its much greater degree of democratic participation and its capacity to cover new members and new policy areas.

However, I was minded more myself of another saying: ‘pride comes before a fall.’ If we are serious about democracy in the EU (and in member states too, for that matter), then some humility would go a long way in starting to rebuild the foundations of trust and legitimacy upon which the entire edifice is built. So let’s pull up some chairs and talk about it.