EU: neither the destroyer nor saviour of Europe

As the Euro crisis intensifies, it’s becoming clear that both Europhiles and Eurosceptics are driven by the same responsibility-shirking instinct.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

On 31 May 2012, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill spoke at the Institute of Ideas debate ‘Will the EU be the death of democracy?’ in London. His opening comments are published below.

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.

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.

The great benefit of the EU for these cut-off governments is that it allowed them to pursue politics in an entirely insulated fashion. It allowed them to outsource political authority to an external entity.

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.

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. Even Poland now wants Germany to save it, which is a turn-up for the history books. The Polish foreign minister has said: ‘I fear German inaction more than I fear German power.’

That statement sums up today’s infantile attitude towards Merkel and 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’.

But the EU is not the cause of all of Europe’s problems and it absolutely is not the solution to them. The problem is the thing which gave rise to the EU in the first place and which still exists: the estrangement of national elites from their peoples. This is the thing that all of the European peoples, from the Greeks to the Irish to the Germans too, share in common: that we are governed by political classes which evade their responsibility to lead and to bring about economic prosperity. If we address this problem, and fight to hold our own leaders to account, we might just challenge the crisis of leadership in Europe and put both rationality and ordinary people’s interests back on the agenda.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here. The above is an edited version of a speech given in London on 31 May 2012.

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

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today