For Europe, against the EU

The progressive’s case for a Brexit.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

On 1 March, Brendan O’Neill spoke to the Brexit Society at Cambridge University. Here’s what he said.

The Brexit camp has asked the BBC to do it one, pretty small favour in the run-up to the EU referendum: to differentiate between ‘Europe’ and ‘the EU’. To encourage its reporters to say ‘Europe’ only when they are referring to the vast continent we live in, and to say ‘the EU’ when they are referring to the Brussels-run union of 28 member states.

And the BBC has refused. Or it has at least failed to clarify when these two very different terms may be used by its staff. This means the BBC has implicitly given a nod of approval to its reporters to say ‘Europe’ when they really mean ‘the EU’.

Some observers think the Brexit lobby is mad for asking for this clarification from the BBC. A writer for the New Statesman said it showed that some people will find bias in the most innocuous of things. In other words: chill out; it is not a problem for the national broadcaster to use the terms ‘Europe’ and ‘the EU’ interchangeably; stop making a fuss about nothing.

But I think the BBC’s unwillingness to maintain a distinction between ‘Europe’ and ‘the EU’ is actually very revealing, and worrying.

It speaks to one of the worst aspects of the debate about the EU: the conflation of the Brussels-based oligarchy with the continent of Europe; the mixing-up of the small, unaccountable cliques who peer down at Europe from their air-conditioned towers in Brussels with Europe itself.

Think about some of the phrases that could potentially be uttered by BBC reporters if they use ‘Europe’ for ‘EU’. They could say that the people of Peterborough, one of the most anti-EU parts of Britain, are ‘against Europe’. They could say that people in Warrington, the seventh most Eurosceptic part of Britain, ‘hate Europe’ or are ‘voting to get out of Europe’.

But of course they’re doing no such thing. Britain isn’t leaving the continent of Europe. That isn’t what we’re voting on. And these people in Peterborough and Warrington might love Europe. They might holiday in Spain, have friends in France, love Swedish TV dramas. Many, if not most, of them won’t be anti-European — they’re just anti-EU.

The Stay campaign’s habit of conflating ‘Europe’ and ‘the EU’ means that those who are anti-EU can be easily depicted as anti-Europe, as xenophobic or nationalistic. These people’s political outlook — their dislike of the way Brussels can impose its writ on nation states — is reduced to a prejudiced outlook, a simple case of being anti-Europe. Their politics is pathologised, turned from opposition to a political system into opposition to a whole continent and its cultures and peoples.

This is why we so often see the term Europhobic. This word explicitly pathologises people’s dislike of the EU. It treats it almost as a mental illness: a phobia is an irrational fear.

The Guardian recently said that ordinary people’s Europhobia has been ‘pandered to and fed by Tory leaders’. So there’s a strange, fearful mob out there and the Tories are recklessly stirring it up. This week, a writer for New Europe magazine listed ‘Europhobia’ alongside ‘xenophobia, nationalism, Islamophobia and racism’, as values that are ‘alien to our postwar European culture’.

See how casually criticism of the EU, opposition to the Brussels oligarchy, is reduced to a phobia, an ism, something which goes against the ideals of Europe itself.

We must challenge the cynical conflation of ‘Europe’ and ‘the EU’, and we must challenge the pathologisation of Brussels’ critics. Because, to my mind, the EU and Europe are not even remotely the same thing. Actually, I’d go further and say that the EU grates against everything that is brilliant about Europe. The EU is an ugly, illiberal, undemocratic blot on the wonderful continent of Europe. The EU is a stain on the best, most inspiring values of Europe and its peoples. It is the EU that is anti-Europe.

I love Europe, but I hate the EU. I consider myself a European. I don’t have any special emotional attachment to Great Britain. I love London, but I’m kind of Irish, and if I could afford it I would live in Paris.

My argument for getting out of the EU is not a Little Englander one. It’s not because I think Britain is the best country in this continent. It’s not because I love the pound or the Queen. It’s because the EU is detrimental to the whole of Europe, and particularly to two incredibly important values that European peoples have in various ways been fighting for for hundreds of years: democracy and liberty. The EU is anti-democratic and illiberal.

Supporters of the EU tell us it is an inspiring union of the European peoples. Nonsense. It is a union of European elites who want to avoid their peoples. The EU is the mechanism through which national governments outsource various powers and decision-making processes to distant, aloof, mostly unaccountable bodies like the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.

The true instinct behind the Brussels machine is not to bring Europe together. It is to absolve national governments of the burden of having to consult us, the plebs, about important political and social matters, in favour of allowing various experts and cliques in Brussels to discuss and shape such matters on our behalf. The EU’s fuel is not cosmopolitanism — it’s democracy-dodging.

From the outset, the EU has not been the embodiment of people’s will — it has been a struggle against people’s will. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty that founded the EU as we know it was only just approved by France and was rejected by Denmark. And of course, John Major’s Tory government refused to put it to a referendum. British people were co-opted into the EU without our explicit say-so.

Almost every time they have been asked about the EU, people in Europe have said ‘We don’t want it’. In Ireland in 2001, voters said No to the Nice Treaty. In 2005, the new EU Constitution was rejected by voters in France and Holland. EU bureaucrats then denounced the French and Dutch as ‘ignorant’ and ‘xenophobic’. One MEP said it was mad to subject something as important as the EU Constitution to the ‘lottery’ of public opinion.

The European Commission responded to this French and Dutch disobedience by renaming the EU Constitution the ‘Lisbon Treaty’, which EC vice-president Margot Wallstrom admitted was ‘essentially the same proposal as the old constitution’. Only this time people wouldn’t be asked to vote on it, because, in the words of Nicolas Sarkozy, ‘a referendum now would bring Europe into danger’. So democracy is dangerous; the people’s will is a threat to the EU project.

In 2008, the Irish were permitted to vote on the Lisbon Treaty. And they said No. They were slammed and defamed by Brussels bureaucrats and forced to vote again. Under the pressure of the EU’s economic blackmail, they said Yes second time round.

The EU is not an expression of European people’s will. On the contrary, it has been constituted time and again in direct opposition to people’s will.

The hostility of the EU to national sentiment and democratically elected governments can also be seen in its constant hectoring of the governments of Eastern Europe.

In 2006, the elected prime minister of Slovakia was instructed by Brussels to challenge political extremism in his country and repress certain political ways of thinking or risk being found in breach of EU regulations. In 2006, the prime minister of Poland was forced by Brussels to declare that his government was not homophobic or anti-Semitic and that it would not bring back the death penalty. In 2011, the EU pressured the Hungarian government to rethink its new constitution.

In 2000, when the far-right Freedom Party won 27 per cent of votes in Austria, enough to enter into a coalition government, Brussels imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria. There would be no ‘business as usual’, the EU decreed, so long as the Freedom Party remained in government. The Freedom Party that had just been elected by huge numbers of Austrian people.

Brussels’ lecturing of Eastern governments doesn’t only expose the anti-democratic instincts of the EU — it also gives the lie to the idea that the EU has united the nations of Europe. Actually the EU has nurtured divisions, primarily between the apparently civilised west of Europe and the allegedly dark, twisted east of Europe which must constantly be corrected, but also between the supposedly industrious north and the apparently lazy, financially reckless south. The Iron Curtain is back, and the north-south divide is back, in a new, insidious way.

The Brussels oligarchy’s view of democracy as dangerous became most apparent in 2011. In that year it worked to impose technocratic governments in Greece and Italy and to import a gang of bankers and bureaucrats to Dublin to keep a watchful eye on the Irish government and its austerity measures. It rode roughshod over democracy, and effectively installed benign tyrannies.

Mario Monti, the unelected technocrat charged with running Italy on behalf of Brussels, actually boasted about the aloofness of his regime. He said: ‘The absence of political personalities removes any ground for disagreement.’ This is what the EU and its lackeys really hate: politics, personality, debate, disagreement — the lifeblood of democracy. They far prefer the rule of experts, the coolness of technocrats.

And their fanboys in the media agree. In 2011, the Guardian published an article headlined ‘In defence of Europe’s technocrats’. It argued that ‘temporary technocrat rule may well be… acceptable — perhaps necessary — at a time of crisis’. Here we have an explicit defence of the destruction of democracy; an open, unabashed argument for the rule of the unelected. And it comes, not from the far right or neo-fascists or other extremist groups that we’re constantly told pose a threat to European values, but from so-called liberals, from supposed EU cosmopolitans.

Some people argue that the EU is our best guard against the kind of tyranny Europe experienced in the 1930s and 40s. Yet as they say this, Brussels installs unelected leaders, blackmails elected prime ministers, describes democratic referendums as a ‘danger’. Under the cover of keeping at bay the tyrannies of the past, the EU constructs a new kind of tyranny.

The vile attacks on the voters of France and Holland and Ireland, the dictating to the elected governments of Eastern Europe, the enforcement of technocratic oversight in Greece and Italy…. none of this is accidental or merely a response to particularly tense, crisis-ridden moments in recent years. Rather, it is in the very nature of the EU to be suspicious of or outright hostile towards the views and attitudes and will of European peoples.

Indeed, the EU has shaped itself precisely around European elites’ feeling of exhaustion with the democratic process. The EU is the means through which politics can be done in a distant and post-democratic way. And to this end, at the very top of Brussels, there is the EC, a body that is emblematic of the EU’s agitation with democracy. This executive body, responsible for proposing EU legislation, is unelected. It has 28 members, one for each member state, who are nominated by the member states. You have no more power to get rid of this clique of commissioners than you have of walking on the Moon this evening. They are beyond your reach, yet they make laws that impact on your life. That is fundamentally contrary to democracy. It cuts against the basic democratic principle that we should consent to the institutions that rule us.

The EU doesn’t only trash democracy. It restricts liberty, too. This vast oligarchical entity is, unsurprisingly, hostile to the idea that people should be free to think and say what they please and to live their lives as they see fit so long as they don’t harm anyone else.

The EU does not trust you plebs. It continually passes rules or laws that seek to govern your minds and lives. It tells all national governments to restrict speech that incites hatred ‘based on race, sex, religion or nationality’, an explicit attack on freedom of speech. It has seriously discussed outlawing the denial not only of the Holocaust — which would be illiberal enough — but also of various other crimes against humanity. This would massively dent academic freedom and historical debate.

Its illiberalism is often mad and petty. It has banned chocolate candy cigarettes on the basis that they ‘appeal to minors’ and could be a gateway to real smoking. It has passed regulations designed to protect ‘vulnerable consumers’ — that is, stupid ordinary people — including by restricting the advertising of formula milk to new mums, who, in the EU’s eyes, should be breastfeeding and not arrogantly making their own parenting choices. It wants to ban diabetics from driving. It enforces controls on products that use a certain amount of wattage, in an attempt to make us uncaring idiots more eco-friendly, whether we want to be or not.

The EU thinks our nationally expressed political will is dangerous, and it thinks it is dangerous to leave us to our own devices, to let us say what we want, buy what we want, behave as we want. This is an institution designed to circumscribe your democratic rights and your everyday ability to run your life.

It goes against what it means to be European. For hundreds of years, through democratic upheavals, revolutions, struggles against arbitrary power and struggles for enlightenment, the peoples of Europe have sought to gain greater control over both their nations’ political affairs and their own lives. The EU undermines both of these things, both democracy and individual liberty. It is against the gains of history. It is against Europe. It is against us.

As someone who considers himself left-wing, I’m horrified that lefties are often at the forefront of defending this elitist institution. It is an historic black mark against the reputation of the left that it has been the chief cheerleader of an institution that undoes so many of the great gains of past radicals and progressives.

We must leave the EU, in order to start the process of recovering our democratic clout. But we must do more than that: we must also encourage and offer solidarity to other European peoples who want to leave. Too much of the current debate is focused around, ‘What will happen to Britain if we leave?’ My concern is what will happen to the other European peoples who will remain stuck in this awful institution. We must fight with them, alongside them, and create a new and real unity across Europe: a union not of elites who distrust the people, but of peoples who have had more than they can take of the elites.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture by: photogreuhphies, published under a creative commons license.

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Topics World


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