10 things I hate about EU
It's boring, illegitimate, technocratic, divisive and bland. Nobody's for it, nobody's against it, it's a retreat from politics and a retreat from economics. And it's a tricky one.
1) It’s boring
You have probably had some great holidays in Europe – but have you ever had a scintillating dinner-party row about the Europe issue? Does the Euro mean anything more to you than strange symbols on price tags? Do you care whether you can buy things in pounds rather than kilos. Are you bothered by the idea that you could have an EU flag on your car number-plate but not a Union Jack?
If none of these pressing issues gets you going, it’s not that you’re apathetic. It’s that the nature of the European Union (EU) makes discussion of this issue fundamentally, and inevitably, boring. Why?
2) It’s illegitimate
Can you name a single MEP (apart from Glenys Kinnock?). Are you one of the majority who did not vote in the last European elections? Do you feel that you have any control at all about decisions made by the EU, and the way they affect the laws of the country you live in?
How could the Europe issue spark genuine interest, when EU institutions float above the democracy of, and accountability to, any of its member states?
This distance between the EU and the electorates of its member states is precisely what national governments find attractive about Europe. At a time when the political elites across the Continent are facing serious questions about the legitimacy of their own, domestic, role – what with falling voter turnouts and the neverending story of sleaze – EU recognition can provide a veneer of legitimacy that is easier to manufacture than it is to gain support at home.
3) It’s a retreat from politics
Forget William Hague’s bleats that the UK government refuses to debate Europe, and never mind Tony Blair’s repost that the people will have their say with a referendum. The issue at stake is not ‘to integrate or not to integrate’. It is the extent to which domestic governments can hide behind Europe, to excuse bad decisions or to justify decisions they are too cowardly to make themselves.
Take the decision to equalise the age of consent for homosexual sex in the UK – the right decision, but a controversial one to take. As gay rights activist Peter Tatchell explains, ‘On a personal level, Blair and the Labour leadership are quite supportive of queer equality. But when it comes to the practical implementation of policies, they’re total cowards’ (1). So Europe is a godsend.
Like the equally controversial decision to lift the ban on gays and lesbians in the armed forces, the decision was made for the government by the European Court of Human Rights. The government gets the result it wants – but when challenged, it can just throw up its hands and claim that Europe forced its decision. Not only are unaccountable decisions taken, but even discussion of these decisions is apparently rendered unnecessary.
4) It’s a retreat from economics
One of the New Labour government’s first moves was effectively to hand control of the UK economy over to the Bank of England. How much more attractive is it, with the Euro, to put the economy even further out of political reach? UK chancellor Gordon ‘prudence and stability’ Brown has never made a secret about his grand plans for the economy: tax a little, spend a little – but whatever you do don’t rock the boat.
At a time when there are seen to be no economic alternatives, what used to be a key job for the government is now treated as a book-keeping exercise – and one best kept at arm’s length. Even if this was an appropriate way to deal with the economy today, what about tomorrow and the future? The UK government’s desire to distance itself so permanently from the grubby business of money gives a clear message about the economy – that this is it, for ever and ever (2).
5) It’s technocratic
The lack of political discussion and accountability that surrounds European institutions creates an open door for the implementation of Continent-wide regulatory measures, which can go through with little opposition.
As has become clear over recent years, the impulse of domestic governments, in many spheres of social life, is to legislate and regulate in the name of safety and stability. How much faster this can happen in the European institutions, where fewer arguments need to be had, fewer tactical decisions need to be made in order to appease certain groups, and the consequences are that much more extensive.
The pace of EU regulation picks up an impulse shared by governments across Europe and runs with it like the wind. When faced with domestic opposition, governments can bemoan ‘Brussels bureaucracy’ and ‘EU red tape’ as they shrug their shoulders and claim they had no choice. And when the EU regulates one thing, that provides a justification for governments to bring something else ‘in line’ with regulations – by regulating that as well.
6) Nobody’s for it
Where is the great federalist vision behind Europe? Where is the enthusiasm, the ambition, the proposed far-reaching changes proposed in debates about integration? The New Labour government is so pro-Europe, it seems, that ‘going in’ tends to be justified on the basis of an imperative not to be left behind, while the political, social and economic changes that going into Europe might bring are not positively talked up, but rather talked down.
In different circumstances, with different motivations, there could be something exhilarating about the creation of a European Union. But today, the best thing politicians seem to be able to say is that going in to Europe is sensible. The process of integration, dull and depoliticised as it is, is treated as inevitable and incontestable, and the expectation is that a referendum will simply ratify the status quo. What a waste, of what could have been an interesting opportunity.
7) Nobody’s against it
Where did those who style themselves ‘Euro-sceptics’ come from – the planet ‘Little England BC?’. The handful of cranks who really do want withdrawal from Europe are precisely that – a handful of cranks, with little public support. Even the wider, softer scepticism about Europe carries little conviction, because of the narrow terms of the debate. After all, nitpicking over the pound and the banana is quite different to debating whether or not to enter the Common Market.
8) It’s divisive
The attraction Europe holds for politicians is similar to the attraction of devolution – promoting localised politics, while the big decisions are taken further and further out of the electorate’s hands. This attempt to focus people on the local, while excluding them from debates of national or international significance, can only breed petty, parochial prejudices. Through Europe, there can be a kind of internationalism in name and law, but one that conceals a more fragmented continent, obsessed with regional concerns.
9) It’s bland
For all the apparent enthusiasm within Europe for promoting local cultures and politics, thanks for Euro-funded projects, the politics and cultures of the countries in Europe are coming to seem more and more identical. ‘Local’ non-governmental organisations promote domestic violence campaigns in the most provincial European market towns; the ‘Bilbao effect’ celebrated by regional regeneration schemes seem set to try to make every once-industrial UK city look – superficially, at least – like Bilbao (if only …).
10) It’s a tricky one
There is a lot wrong with European integration, in the way it is motivated and discussed. But that does not mean European integration is wrong per se. The issue is not ‘are you for Europe or against it?’, but ‘what does Europe represent, and why?’ And this debate is not susceptible to yes/no soundbites, or political slogans.
When pounds of bananas can dominate a discussion; when the screech ‘EU red tape’ is the most substantial critique you are likely to hear of any new regulation; when the EU courts make many decisions you agree with, even if you think it was the wrong place to make those decisions….it doesn’t bode well for a rational discussion about the Europe issue.
But it’s still a great place to go on holiday.
(1) See Me and my vote: Peter Tatchell, by Brendan O’Neill
(2) See Rock the vote not the boat in Election spiked-geist: Day Two, by Josie Appleton, and NHS investment – a ‘crucial’ choice or a tiny difference? in Election spiked-geist: Day Four, by Josie Appleton