Debate: Europhiles and eurosceptics – you’re all the same
12 June 2012
While Europhiles believe Brussels is the cure for all ills, Eurosceptics maintain it is the fount of all evil. But are they all that different from each other? wonders Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill.
Over the past year, as the Euro crisis has intensified, there has been a really interesting revelation – which is that Europhiles and Eurosceptics are not that different from each other. In fact, Europhiles and Eurosceptics are driven by very similar impulses, by similar anti-democratic instincts.
Both of these groups seem keen to absolve national governments of responsibility, to absolve nation states of responsibility for political and economic chaos.
Did the EU kill democracy? – No
The Europhile does it by kowtowing to Brussels, calling upon EU institutions to do more to save Europe. And the Eurosceptic does it by blaming the EU for almost everything that goes wrong, treating Brussels as a kind of Death Star that has sucked decency from every inch of Europe.
The Europhile tends to have blind faith in the EU, seeing it as the solution to every problem, while the Eurosceptic has a blinkered dislike of the EU, seeing it as the cause of every problem. What they share in common is a belief that responsibility lies with the EU. Both the depiction of the EU as the saviour of Europe and the depiction of it as the destroyer of Europe are underpinned by an instinct to say: “National governments are not to blame for what has gone wrong.”
In answer to the question ‘Did the EU kill democracy?’, I would say ‘No, it didn’t’. The EU is better understood as the end product of the death of democracy in Europe, a creation of national governments that had given up on the ideas of sovereignty and democracy. The EU follows the demise of European democracy, rather than instigating it.
The real driving force behind the EU over the past 40 years was the cowardice and opportunism of national governments, not the sinister ambitions of Brussels or Berlin. National political leaders who felt increasingly estranged from their own populations fashioned a post-sovereign institution that they could effectively hide in.
A good example of this came in the late 1990s, when the British government accepted the European ruling that the age of consent for homosexuals should be reduced from 18 to 16. That is something the government wanted to do anyway, but because it believed it would be controversial, it effectively allowed Europe to make the decision on its behalf. The benefit of the EU is that it allowed governments to take action without having to bother with pesky public debate or with taking moral responsibility.
Of course, the downsides to insulated decision-making are enormous and profound. Because the more national governments insulated themselves from their publics, the more incapable they became of exercising real leadership. The more they took refuge in EU institutions, the more out-of-touch and irrational they became.
We had an early warning of this during the Icelandic volcanic eruption in 2010, when political leaders basically went crazy, grounding aeroplanes and bringing Europe to a standstill. That was a direct consequence of their self-insulation, and their subsequent inability to engage with reality or show leadership.
The dangers of self-insulation can be seen even more dramatically in the Euro-crisis. No politician in Europe has the first clue how to deal with the crisis, precisely because every politician in Europe has spent recent decades avoiding making serious decisions, avoiding taking responsibility, avoiding being leaders. The growth of the ‘EU outlook’, of the idea that political leadership is too hard and technocratic decision-making is preferable, has directly worsened the Euro crisis.
But where the Eurosceptics get it wrong is in their treatment of Brussels as the single-handed destroyer of democracy, as a rampaging beast chewing up Little Englanders, Irish farmers, poor Greeks. Because the key dynamic in the formation of the EU was always national governments offering up political authority to EU institutions and disavowing their own sovereignty.
A schizophrenic attitude
Eurosceptics who point the finger of blame at ‘Bad Brussels’ are not that different from Europhiles who bow before ‘Good Brussels’. We’re now seeing the rise of a respectable form of Euroscepticism. From President Hollande in France to SYRIZA in Greece, many politicians now berate Brussels for ruining Europe.
But these attacks on Brussels are also designed to get national governments off the hook. When Hollande presents France as a victim of EU decisions, he’s playing the same game as those governments which once warmly welcomed EU decisions – he’s trying to avoid having his national institutions held to account for what has happened in France.
This schizophrenic attitude towards the EU is best summed up in the way Angela Merkel is now treated. I am almost starting to feel sorry for Merkel. She is depicted by some as a Hitler-style witch who has wrecked Europe. But she is held up by others as the potential saviour of Europe, with leaders calling upon her to save the Eurozone and to save struggling nations.
This demonstrates an infantile attitude not just towards Merkel but towards the EU more broadly. EU power is seen as dangerous, but so is EU inaction; some see the EU as the wrecker of nations, others believe it isn’t doing enough to rescue nations. The way Merkel and the EU are now treated reminds me of what Homer Simpson once said about beer – that it is ‘the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems’.