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If you’re British and care about UK-EU relations, then you’re either in a state of permanent delusion or permanent depression

Two grandees of UK politics were at it again today. Peter Mandelson, while at least acknowledging an in-out referendum for the UK, was nevertheless pompous and deluded in the FT: “pro-Europeans […] should acknowledge that their case has largely been won by default and that it needs to be re-articulated with fresh vigour”. Vince Cable, speaking at Chatham House, was even worse, quoted in Chatham House’s newsletter thus: “The debate about the Single Market, like the wider debate about the EU, must be based on thorough analysis not emotion” (there’s more about the event he spoke at here, and the edition of International Affairs is here).

Sorry Vince and Peter, but what planet are you living on? You’re both deluded.

Thorough analysis might be important for good policy making, but that is not going to be what will influence a debate about EU matters in the UK. Indeed I do not think you really appeal to anyone in UK politics that way. You appeal to people on the basis of the values that you hold, and how you express them. You need to apply the lessons of George Lakoff.

Putting it another way: making the case for Britain remaining in the EU is not a glorified bean counting exercise – we gain X% of GDP, while your isolationism will lose you Y% of GDP. Neither side can ‘win’ this debate – we do not have a counterfactual, something that can mysteriously help us work out what the UK being outside the EU these last 40 years would look like. While I admire the persistence of people like Nucleus and Brian Duggan, I cannot see how their approach can possibly work.

The ‘debate’ about the EU in the UK is gone. It’s lost. It’s broken. To think there is a way back, just with the old measures, just with the same old, stale ‘pro-European’ appeals from Jackie Ashley or Polly Toynbee in The Guardian is the height of delusion. This is the country where populist journalists based in Westminster think it’s OK to tell Members of the European Parliament that they know more about the European Parliament than the MEP does. Where newspapers feel it’s fine to publish stuff about the EU, while either already knowing it’s not true, or not doing basic research (case here, rebuttal here). This is the country where – fuelled by the expenses scandal in Westminster and the enduring whiff of corruption in the Brussels corridors too – it is assumed that you must be corrupt just to want to be a Member of the European Parliament. It’s guilty until for sure shown to be guilty, not innocent until proven guilty as it should be. Take the temperature of the comments below this story I wrote about a sensible MEP, Sharon Bowles, on The Guardian’s website, and try and counter that stuff. Yes, that’s The Guardian.

So what to do?

Personally I have just crossed the threshold from deluded to depressed. I really do not have answers, ideas of how to move forward, at least not in the short term. I do not see any realistic way forward without an in-out referendum, but the prospect that such a vote actually really solves things is not likely either. Further, if the In side were to be run as Yes was run in the AV referendum then Out would have a good chance to win. In would need to learn the lessons of the Irish No to Lisbon campaign – letting a thousand flowers bloom, and within the panoply of views everyone could find their cause. The danger would be with people like Mandy or Cable at the helm that the In campaign would end up being the very same stodgy pro-Europeanism that has served us so badly for so long – bean counting style, poorly framed, institutional, and bland. Of course the popular but not realistically achievable ‘renegotiate’ option on the ballot would negate the danger of an Out victory, but would just prolong the agony of UK-EU wrangles.

The bare bones of some sort of rebound for keeping the UK inside the EU, and indeed some sort of effort to restore some trust in mainstream party politics, will need deep and profound changes at all levels. A measly 11% of the British trust political parties – among large EU Member States only Italy is lower (more here). The academics behind the UK’s Democratic Audit use the words that UK democracy is in ‘terminal decline‘. Meanwhile replacing politicians with business people on platforms, Britain in Europe early-2000s-style, is no good either – with enough large corporates being hauled over the coals since the 2008 financial crisis business people are not trustworthy surrogates for politicians.

It as if we have switched to a new default – no trust of the political establishment – and we need new ways to come to terms with this. Complete transparency of the conduct of our politicians, and net-connected participatory decision making, have to be part of the answer (issues that I referred to in my counterfactual). What is called “prefigurative action” – the attempt to practice the kind of democracy that we as citizens imagine, the way Occupy movements work – needs to be part of it too. You should not need to be a sycophantic devotee to a party line and banner to feel you can play some role within politics. But even then I don’t know where all of that will lead us.

At national, just as at EU level, we do not really know how to properly do representative democracy in the post deference, always connected age. Until we work it out I fear I’m going to stay stuck in my depression.

Photo: "Peter Mandelson - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008" by World Economic Forum on January 26, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

11 Comments

  • Eurocentric |

    While I agree with a lot of this post, I don’t think the “letting a thousand flowers bloom” model is a viable one for a pro-[anything] side in a referendum. A strong case – and persuasive narrative – needs to be built around the rationale for the EU, single market, etc., if it’s to win support. Pick and mix when challenging the status quo (which is the UK’s mindset towards the EU no matter how established the EU institutions may be) will not work. Personally the lesson I’ve learnt from referendums in Ireland is that political parties are simply not designed to fight them properly, and that civil society groups win referendums.

    That doesn’t take away from your conclusion, however…

  • Jon |

    Interesting comment, but has the EU (and how we understand it) not moved on? My fear is that the arguments I may use for the EU as a social democrat are mutually exclusive to those a conservative would use. Try making one, unified campaign out of that and it will end up being weak and bland.

    As for if it’s to be run by civil society organisations – where are those in the UK please?

  • David Schoibl |

    Dear Jon,

    You forgot to mention the work the Labour Movement for Europe is doing on narrative framing. Should you be in London on November 27, 2012 you’d be more than welcome to join us at 6pm in Committee Room 6 HoC to discuss ‘Energy, Environment and Europe. Why working together makes sense.’ – An event featuring Mary Creagh MP; Jonathan Gaventa, Programme Leader at E3G, WWF Director of Campaigns David Norman, myself and chaired by Cllr Leonie Cooper, Co-Chair of SERA.

    You know that I agree with you that dry facts and fact-based rebuttals alone will not be sufficient. But Civil Society is waking up, and this is giving me hope. Have you ever heard Phil Bloomer from Oxfam on Europe? I have this Monday for the first time, and he makes so much sense. Research Councils UK have spoken out to safeguard research and innovation in next year’s EU budget and in the MFF 2014-2020. There is scope to include a European dimension in a new winning progressive narrative located between Labour Party, Unions and progressive CSOs. I am quite realistic about the danger that events over the past couple of months have made #BREXIT more likely. It does however not seem unavoidable to me yet.

  • Ralf Grahn |

    Jon,

    The propaganda campaign from the “tabloids” has profoundly changed steadily worsening public opinion in the UK (and elite opinion is not far behind). I agree with you that in the existing climate of vilification, compunded by the fundamental flaws of the economic and monetary union (EMU) and helplessness in front of the crises, people would express their visceral opinion in a referendum.

    Disgust, not bean counting would mobilise and decide, as you correctly point out.

    However, I am more in line with Eurocentric with regard to how a referendum would play out. The negativists can always sow a thousand doubts (flowers if you will), true or false, part of which will stick however absurd they may be.

    A Yes camapign has to build on one fundamental ‘survival’ message, whatever the different parts of a Yes coalition say in other respects.

  • Thierry |

    HI Jon,

    This speech by Mario Monti in 2006 is only tangentially connected to your questions (it speaks to “reason”), but it also takes the fight directly to some of the questions that get eurosceptics crowing as to the flaws of the EU (corruption, socialist centralisation, anti-captialist, anti-american …) they perceive … well more like their prejudices.

    http://www.iie.com/publications/papers/paper.cfm?ResearchID=652

    Best regards,

  • Eurocentric |

    @ Jon

    In Ireland it’s usually existing civil society and interest groups that declare their position, with ad hoc groups being set up as specific campaigns for the referendum. My point was more that political parties are designed to get people elected, rather than to campaign on a single issue so they generally do not perform well in referendums (the Children’s Referendum last Saturday got by on 60-40 despite being a mum’s-apple-pie type amendment, so performance on more controversal issues isn’t much better).

    There can be some parallel arguments made on the left and right for the EU, but the core argument will have to be coherent and is inevitably bland when you are arguing for a layer of government (as the arguments advanced in favour of Scotland staying in the union will be bland apart for a few appeals to history). Essentially, we’ll just have to argue that the EU allows us to decide on matters X, Y and Z (e.g. it lets us build a successful market that we can regulate to make sure it’s safe and relatively just, plus home affairs and security, etc) plus bells and whistles from the left and right. (So each expands on the core idea in a coherent way through their respective ideologies [ideally]). The problem is that participation builds connection to a level of government, and really there needs to be at least 2 vigorous elections with competing Commission Presidential candidates to build up some connection. Not much we can do about that in the meantime…

  • Jon |

    @David – yes, I am well aware of the LME narrative stuff. But it’s a tiny drop in a hostile ocean. And look at the things Labour has been doing in the last 6 months! Real terms budget drop, and claiming to be pro-EU? Forked tongues. And I can’t come on 27th because I am working in Brussels that day.

    @Ralf / Eurocentric – sorry if I had not made it clear re. civil society groups. I know in Ireland the campaigns were based around existing groups (I’m still webmanager for one of them – European Movement Ireland). But the problem in the UK at the moment is that even the more major not-for-profits will not go near the EU debate, for fear that it harms the rest of their advocacy. You just don’t touch EU matters – it’s all too toxic.

    @Thierry – thank you!

  • right_writes |

    I believe that it was somebody called “Tip” O’Neil who declared that all politics is local, and I reckon he was right…

    …The EU can never succeed because it doesn’t have a people…

    …After 300 years of a union known as the Uninted Kingdom, there is still very little union between it’s component states, so there is absolutely no chance of 27+ states forming a functioning democracy.

    A situation where there is no democracy reminds me of a couple of twentieth century attempts at uniting European states and they always end in the same way that the EU will end… A chaotic descent into a mafia state.

    What would be far more appropriate would be to break down the UK into not only its traditional component parts, but into ever smaller local polities, where the people know their politicians and control them.

  • Ralf Grahn |

    @Jon
    What I meant is that No groups can draw on a plethora of fears, each with its own base of supporters, and that these minorities (from anti-abortionists to farmers) together can make a majority, as a few referendums in Ireland and France have shown.

    The Yes message from government, NGOs and pro-European citizens must be focussed, positive and convincing to a majority – a strong basic theme, methinks.

  • Camille Lepinay |

    @Jon Worth,
    in an attempt to cheer you up about the existence of some British Europhile who can argue for the EU (and you are a prime example). you may have a look at the argumentated deconstruction of the UK position on the EU budget by James Spence (Honorary Director of the European Commission): “A high price to pay? Britain and the European budget”
    http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/ia/archive/view/186877
    Quite refreshing (though admitted the permanence of the book keeping view is quite depressing)

  • Ian Young |

    Jon,

    I know you wrote this in November and a weeks a long time etc. but even a cursory examination of the Euro-sceptic case, that has been happening in the past couple of weeks has seen their case cracking.
    For example a reiteration by a junior Whitehouse spokesman of the same policy that the US has had since 1945 (to see a prosperous united Europe that include Britain) has left Farage in a Mugabesque tizzy.
    I too have become very tired of this back-of-a-fag packet cost benefit analysis that UK politicians move backwards and forwards but even if Eurosceptics can’t even put forward a coherent answer to an even a most basic piece of historical and IR related narrative I see cause for optimism.

So, what do you think ?