It’s time to get serious about opposing the EU

Anyone who really wants to tackle the anti-democratic EU must first distance himself from the new clique of infantile Brussels-bashers.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Brexit Politics

It’s becoming fashionable to criticise the EU. Seven years after the French and Dutch electorates were branded ‘xenophobic’ for voting against the EU Constitution, and four years after the Irish were labelled ‘treacherous’ for the same, the media elites who did all that namecalling are now posing as brave critics of Brussels.

New French president Francois Hollande has won heaps of praise from the liberal media in Western Europe for standing up to Angela Merkel and austerity. The Greek radicals in SYRIZA have got many a soixante huitard hack hot under the collar with their posturing against EU cliques. Everywhere you look, it seems the same observers who once railed against the thick ‘Europhobic’ masses who dared to say No to the EU in referendums are now coming out as Europhobic themselves, or at least as disappointed with Brussels.

But there’s little positive in this rise of what we might call a semi-sceptical attitude towards the EU. Even spiked, which has been implacably opposed to the anti-democratic, initiative-strangling EU from the get-go, must now accept that a deeply problematic anti-EU outlook is on the march in parts of Europe. There are five problems with this Johnny-Come-Lately dislike of Brussels.

1) It’s a remarkably partial critique

The disappointed-with-Brussels lobby only criticises the EU for its economic interventions in sovereign states’ affairs, never for its cultural or political interventions. So while observers are peeved at the EU’s stringent bailout package for Greece, and are alarmed at the power exercised by European suits in the economic affairs of Ireland, they have said next to nothing about the contemporaneous EU pressure on the Ukraine to rewrite its laws.

The Ukraine is desperate to become a member of the EU, but Brussels bigwigs are forcing it to overhaul its political and legal systems first. EU officials have put on ice a landmark free-trade deal and planned ‘political association’ with the Ukraine, ostensibly in protest against the imprisonment of former premier Yulia Tymoshenko but really because they think the Ukraine has the wrong kind of political culture. One EU suit warned the Ukraine that it has a ‘systemic problem’ which requires a ‘systemic solution’, and said there could be no further deal-making between Kiev and Brussels until the Ukraine had satisfactorily instituted ‘concrete strategies to redress the effects of selective justice… free and fair elections… and the resumption of delayed reforms’. EU leaders are boycotting the Euro 2012 football games in the Ukraine in order to heap further pressure on this basket case of a nation to become ‘more European’.

This cultural blackmailing of the Ukraine represents a more intolerable intervention into a state’s affairs than we have seen in Greece or Ireland. Those two nations have largely had their economic independence obliterated, yes, and that is terrible – but the Ukraine is being strongarmed into making ‘systemic’ changes to its entire mode of politics. This echoes the EU’s treatment of member state Hungary, whose democratically elected government has likewise been demonised for passing laws that fall foul of the cosmo-outlook of the PC inhabitants of Brussels. That these acts of cultural imperialism elicit hardly any criticism, certainly in comparison with the angst generated by the EU’s economic imperialism, suggests the semi-sceptical lobby only has a problem with ‘Merkozy’-proposed cuts to public spending and not with the right of Brussels to tell naughty Eastern nations how to behave.

2) It misunderstands the nature of the EU

The semi-sceptical lobby believes a handful of individuals around Brussels, led by the demonic Merkel, are forcing European nations to dance to their tune. In Greece, Merkel is depicted as a Hitlerian figure. Others rail against the troika (the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank) which is enforcing bailout packages, believing it is holding all of Europe to ransom.

This demonstrates great ignorance about the nature and origins of the EU project. It is of course true that Brussels put enormous pressure on democratically elected leaders in Italy and Greece to replace themselves with technocrats. But it is wrong to view the EU as the creation and fiefdom of small numbers of ruthless leaders. In truth, the EU project of the past 40 years arose from the needs of all of Europe’s cut-off, legitimacy-lacking national elites. Feeling themselves increasingly estranged from their own populaces, and more crucially from the political legitimacy that comes with having a connection with the populace, national elites chose to club together in Brussels, to create new institutions which would allow them both to formulate political and economic policy away from the madding crowd and also to derive some measure of political legitimacy from the idea that they were pursuing ‘the European project’ rather than from their own demos.

Fundamentally, the EU represents, not German expansionism or French arrogance, but the collective and cowardly pooling together and dilution of national sovereignty by the leaders of modern Europe. This was not real European unity, a democratic bringing-together of the European peoples, but rather a safety net for the European elites. Where the exercise of national sovereignty demands that the political class have meaningful roots and relationships in society, the post-sovereign, pseudo-cosmopolitan institutions of the EU allow it to pursue politics and economics in an entirely insulated fashion. In this sense, the technocracy created in Italy and the usurping of normal democratic politics in Greece and Ireland are not deviations from the EU project; they’re the logical conclusion to it. We are seeing in brute form what the EU has always been about: the elites’ flight from the political realm into the comfort zone of bureaucracy.

Some now fantasise that Europe might recover if we get shot of Merkel or restrain the troika. But the thing which nurtured the EU project in the first place – the chasm between national elites and their populations – would still be there.

3) It is backwardly parochial

One of the main arguments of the semi-sceptical lobby is that European nations are threatened by terrifying external forces. From the monster that was ‘Merkozy’ to the all-purpose bogeyman of ‘globalisation’, from American bankers to cheap Chinese goods, the semi-sceptics are convinced that alien elements are to blame for the misfortunes of their nations. Their toxic combination of national self-pity and responsibility-avoidance, where the chief aim is to absolve national elites of culpability for the European predicament, means their critique of Brussels frequently comes with ugly protectionist undertones.

So during the recent French presidential elections, all the candidates depicted the EU as one of many ‘global forces’ that threatened to ‘dilute’ France (in Nicolas Sarkozy’s words). Other semi-sceptics point the finger of blame for Europe’s woes at German unilateralism or the EU’s adoption of ‘neoliberalism’.

Here, being anti-Brussels is really an expression of both a profound sense of political powerlessness and also a desire to retreat into the national shell and hide from the world. The obsession with Merkel’s awesome power or with the apparently all-consuming force of globalisation really speaks to an instinctive recognition that national institutions are increasingly feeble and not up to the task of addressing political and economic crises. But unable to account for this enfeeblement of the nation state, the semi-sceptics fantasise that it was destroyed by political and economic Godzillas from without, primarily from Brussels and Berlin. The infantile nature of their critique of Brussels – where they fail to understand that it is a clubbing together of cynical national elites and instead paint it as a neoliberal conspiracy – means they adopt the sort of victim-driven protectionist outlook one normally associates with virulent nationalism.

4) It reduces ‘growth’ to a meaningless buzzphrase

Even more unconvincing than the cultural elite’s recent turn against the excesses of the EU is its sudden conversion to the ideal of economic growth. A media class which for years has demonised growth, depicting it as the destroyer of nature and cause of mental sickness, is now cheering Hollande and other Merkel-critics for insisting that Europe pursue growth not austerity. Even Polly Toynbee, in an about-face that would make Glenda Slagg wince, has gone from her usual shtick of ridiculing Eurosceptics and complaining about the ‘psycho-social stress’ brought about by unrestrained growth to cheering Hollande for being a kind-of Eurosceptic who demands growth…

Here, growth is little more than a hollow buzzword. It is uttered not as a serious proposition but rather as a marker of anti-Merkel decency, a word which shows that you are in the ‘good EU’ camp rather than in the bad old ‘Merkozy’ camp. Yet while Hollande might succeed in getting a few mentions of the g-word inserted into the EU’s austere fiskalpakt, modern Europe’s fundamental hostility to the pursuit of growth will remain intact. The profound intellectual, political and cultural suspicion of growth, as most clearly expressed in the cults of environmentalism and ‘sustainable development’, will still be prevalent.

The semi-sceptics are promoting the mad idea that if you say the word ‘growth’ often enough, it will magically occur. Those of us who are serious about the pursuit of growth because we are serious about liberating people from need know that, in truth, creating the conditions for growth will require: a) getting a handle on what measures must be taken now to stem recessionary trends, and b) waging a war of words against the anti-growth prejudices that have modern Europe in a vice-like grip.

5) It is immature

One of the worst things about the semi-sceptical lobby is its childlike nature. From SYRIZA saying they will withdraw from the Euro if they don’t get what they want to Geert Wilders’ preference for bringing down the Dutch government over agreeing to cuts in public spending, anti-Brussels posturing is best understood as a political tantrum rather than a political position. We’re seeing a process of self-infantilisation. We know that the EU infantilises nations, but what is striking is how much the opposition plays into this game and accepts the label of ‘infant’, behaving like a child angry at its parents rather than as a political grown-up with an alternative to what Brussels is offering.

These Eurosceptics must grow up. If we’re going to oppose the EU – and spiked absolutely thinks we should – then let’s do it for the right reasons. Not because it is an evil entity fashioned by German neoliberals and it would be better to hide behind our national borders rather than engage with it, but because it is a profoundly anti-democratic creation of Europe’s aloof modern elites which actually prevents proper European unity. Bringing the peoples of Europe closer together is a wonderful idea – and if we challenge both the oligarchical EU and its infantile protectionist critics, we might just start to bring that about.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. He is speaking at the Institute of Ideas debate Will the EU be the death of democracy? at Goodenough College, London, on Thursday 31 May.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Brexit Politics


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