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“The national interest” – the next term to reject in the EU framing fight

“It’s in Britain’s national interest to be in the EU” – it pains me how often we hear that phrase (or words that that effect) in speeches made by UK politicians about the EU. Yet we very seldom question its use.

The need to start to question it, for me at least, has been given new urgency by Douglas Alexander’s EU speech earlier this week (full text here) that mentions ‘national’ 9 times, and ‘democratic’ only once*. Alexander uses phrases like “those of us who see Britain’s national interest as best served within the European Union”.

But what does that actually mean? What is the national interest?

First, there is the notion that – when it comes to negotiating in Brussels – there is something that binds the inhabitants of the United Kingdom together, to want to push for the same thing. That encompasses everything from a Scottish fisherman to a person in retraining in a Welsh valley to a millionaire banker in the City of London. The way UK internal politics works correctly assumes there is little common political ground between these characters, but when we talk about Britain’s relationship with the EU we suddenly assume there is.

I do not reject the notion that there might be some trends between countries – that the British population might be more hostile towards integration, more free-market as opposed to protectionist, more opposed to subsidies, than populations elsewhere. But I would also contend that a banker in the City of London has more interests in common with a banker in Frankfurt than with a fisherman in Scotland. Likewise a Welsh person on a retraining scheme in a post-industrial region has more in common with a French counterpart in the same situation in Lens than with a millionaire banker in the City. Only we never debate EU politics in those terms.

There is then the second issue – that citing national interest in relation to the EU is done in equal measure by both Labour and the Tories (or at least their frontbench) – Cameron’s speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet this week is a case in point. When Cameron says Britain’s membership of the EU is in the national interest, do the words mean the same as when Douglas Alexander says them? Each will have their own interpretation of what that national interest is, but by using the term so frequently across the political spectrum it precludes meaningful debate about the sort of European Union we want. “The national interest is for a more social EU” doesn’t really work.

My third issue is the emotional connection that the phrase “national interest” evokes. It makes a person first think of the nation (and, for all the problems of defining Britishness, there is some emotional connection), and then make the leap to think of the nation in the context of something wider, the EU. With a debate in the UK about the EU that has been antagonistic for more than 30 years, the use of this phrase that encompasses and even emotionally highlights this antagonism makes no sense in framing terms.

I therefore suggest that the term “the national interest” should not be used in speeches by UK politicians about the EU, in the same way as I have argued the pro-European / eurosceptic frame should also be rejected. Politicians instead should articulate the interests of individual citizens, or groups of citizens wherever they are located. The needs of workers, bankers, fishermen, entrepreneurs, public sector workers should be set into an EU context, rather than first of all trying to construct a false notion that all in the UK agree before our politicians speak about the EU.

* – for more analysis of Alexander’s speech see this I wrote for LabourList and Emma Reynolds’s response.


3 Comments

  • french derek |

    Well put. In her speech to her party congress Frau Merkel impressed the value of Germany’s EU membership in “real” terms – what it means in jobs, contacts, etc; whilst at the same time arguing for “more Europe”, closer political and fiscal integration; and (inferred) movement towards a federal EU. No weasel messages here. Compare.

    As a citizen of Europe, the benefits of the Euro and Schengen, plus countless other, helpful interventions establishing a EU-standard approach are appreciated as much as (more than?) mere trading relationships.

    It’s the “island mentality” I fear that is affecting Mr Cameron.

  • Trooper Thompson |

    @ French Derek,

    but this is an island.

    As for Merkel, good for her if she engages in honest debate about the planned European federal state. If the debate has been antagonistic in this nation of ours, it is because those who support Brussels refuse to be honest about ‘ever closer union’.

  • peter |

    I sadly doubt that politicians will heed your advice as, for them, the term “it’s in the national interest” is fantastic – precisely because they can use it in a meaningless manner and get away with it. Especially when they don’t really know what they should say and/or it involves complex matters, such the EU.
    For some, it is also a useful tool to rally a diverse range of societal groups (which make up a nation) by evoking an “external threat” aka. the sovereign nation vs. the EU. After all, the taxi driver in the City of London might side with the city banker if he perceives an EU financial tax will ultimately mean less business for him, whether it be true or false.

    Likewise for the slippery terms: eurosceptic / europhile – I doubt journalists will ever give them up as they are just so convenient..

    It would be nice if politicians did not play national politics with the EU. But i guess that would only end if those politicians had to find votes across a number of Member States..

    This leads to the fundamental question which the European Convention failed to properly settle. What is the EU’s end destination? Listening to Merkel and Cameroon – the key political leaders in Europe continue to fail to find a common vision

So, what do you think ?