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The post-national case for the EU

Screen Shot 2013-01-02 at 11.19.09The ‘eurorealist’ pressure group Nucleus in the UK has rebranded and is now the Centre for British Influence Through Europe (CBIE). I read the name and it immediately rankled, and a few people on Twitter pushed me to answer why.

The answer, in essence, is whether a national case for the EU is right, and can even work.

The pro-EU case in the UK has broadly been argued along the lines that there is a common British interest – the national interest if you like – and then once this has been defined, it can be argued whether this means Britain should be in the EU or not. That’s exactly what CBIE is trying to do.

But think for a moment how everyday politics inside the UK is done. No party – not even Labour with its latest One Nation slogan – tries to build an electoral appeal to the entire population. There is an implicit acknowledgement that on most issues there is no complete consensus about what the right answer to any political question actually is. So why do we talk about the EU as if there is such a consensus, that there is a unified idea of what the British national interest is?

To put this another way, I’m a freelance worker working with clients across the EU. What I’m going to need from the EU is going to be more in common with what a freelance worker in Germany or Slovenia is going to need from the EU, than what a British person looking to retire to Italy is going to need, or what a nurse living in Liverpool who travels to Spain once a year is going to want. A person’s views on the EU should be shaped more by their personal circumstances, and by their ideology and values, than they are by their nationality. Why then in the UK ‘debate’ about the EU do we only ever seem to focus on the latter?


8 Comments

  • Ralf Grahn |

    Jon, you’re right in many respects. We and the EU should strive for the (elusive) “common good” for all EU citizens, although political views and economic as well as other interests make us see the desired outcomes differently.

    This is why the EU or at least the eurozone needs to be refounded on its citizens, on the basis of representative democracy, but with strong fundamental rights.

    All member states try to promote ‘national interests’, both rhetorically (for politicians to be elected and for governments to gain wide acceptance) and to protect special interests and national champions (the German car industry just a case among many).

    However, the political class in the United Kingdom has applied a mindset and speech modes amazingly narrow and constricted even among equals in the Council and the European Council.

    It is extremely rare to find British politicians (or media) even hinting at contributing to European integration and accepting the responsibilities attached. This is the reason why jingoism seems to be the right term for UK participation (even if the word nationalism is seldom used).

    Somewhat astonishing is the groundswell of support for curtailing social and fundamental rights in the UK, for all or at least great numbers of the own population (the concept citizen not much used).

  • peter wilding |

    Hi Jon,

    It shouldn’t rankle you that we are making a directly political case for continued UK membership of the EU. The argument will be lost before it has begun if we don’t understand how the anti-EU case has been fashioned here and why it is important to deal with the people and the media we have rather than as we would want them to be. Regular polling reveals that the UK population has no problem with cross-border policies on matters such as the single market, energy and the environment. It is infuriated by the perceived powerlessness of the UK in shaping EU policy and believes the price of this is a bill amounting to 25% of UK GDP. There is an obvious moral case for showing that these two perceptions are untrue in order to balance the debate. This is also why it is critical to demonstrate how the UK seeks to achieve its objectives and how it can do so with allies. It is of course very worthy to push a post-national paradigm but it won’t work with voters either here or in other member states. The way to deal with rising nationalism is not to ignore it but to confront it head on. After all, the UK is the only member state that fails to dress up its national ambitions with the 12 star flag. It surely is right and more realistic to engage people in a debate about the here and now. Anything else is the other side of the Dan Hannan line of imagining a new world which, at the moment, doesn’t exist or, if it does, fails to engage the voter.

    So join us!

  • Joe Litobarski |

    Hi Jon,

    I’ve had a think about your post, and perhaps I understand what you’re driving at a bit better now. You’re arguing that there’s no point in appealing to “Britain” as a homogeneous lump during a campaign. Rather, there should be separate campaigns targeting (for example) Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem, etc. voters.

    I absolutely agree with this. However, one of the lessons of the AV referendum was that too much emphasis was placed on appealing to urban left-ish voters (who would probably have voted “Yes” anyway), whilst completely ignoring centre-right voters. The “Centre for British Influence Through Europe” is, I think, aimed at precisely those voters that were ignored during the AV referendum.

    Joe

  • Jon |

    @Peter – thanks for the comment, but no, I will not be joining. I’m glad you’re doing what you’re doing, someone has to do it I suppose. But I still maintain that some people need to put the case for the EU in its own terms, and on terms related to ideology and values rather than nationality. That is not necessarily at odds with what you’re trying to do. Also, as I’ve argued many times, I fear the political framing of your approach is not right. But time will tell.

    @Joe – I think that overestimates the ability of the Yes campaign to actually work out who it was trying to appeal to! Many of the main messages seemed to be almost anti-politics in their approach. Peter Wilding may be able to explain more, but it strikes me that CBIE is not what you say. Instead it is trying to be a more determined assertion of classical British pro-Europeanism – like European Movement, only less woolly.

  • David Gow |

    @jon CBIE/Nucleus is NOT trying to reassert classical pro-Europeanism like a reformed European Movement but to do several other things: one, proclaim the value of siding with other MS to reform/restructure the EU to make it fit for the 21st century; two, promote with other partners greater democratic accountability within the institutions – and the need for systematic subsidiarity; three, assert that it is only by collaborating with others across a range of policy sectors (not just trade) that the UK can influence global developments/change; and, four, yes, reclaim Europe as a patriotic value rather than allow others, including xenophobes and fascisants, to denigrate it as essentially anti-British. As a Scot, social democrat and child of the Enlightenment I see the campaign as promulgating and refurbishing the ideas of tolerance, open-ness, rational discourse, freedom, justice, togetherness (“fraternité”) that propelled progress 250 years ago and were (almost entirely) destroyed in the continent’s killing fields and death camps.

  • Jon |

    @David – sorry, but none of that strikes me as any different to what the European Movement has sought to do over the years, perhaps with the exception of number 4.

  • Jon Ward |

    There are certain basic facts about a country’s political situation which will tend to be in the majority of citizens’ interests. For instance, if an economy goes into a disastrous recession (such as the kind Greece is experiencing) it might actually benefit a few isolated individuals who can profit from the new situation, but to use that qualifier to conclude that it’s not a fundamentally bad thing for the country as a whole would be a bit of a nonsense.

    The vast majority of people’s relationships to the EU can be traced through national governments. Your average unemployed person on benefits in the UK has little direct relationship with Europe over and above “does it help Britain’s economy and therefore influence the amount of money that ends up in my bank account every two weeks, or the employment opportunities available to me”. The national perspective is absolutely the best dimension in which to make a case to such people.

    Moreover, we’re talking about a debate in which the opposition (i.e. UKIP) essentially bases their appeal on the national interest – the UK pays too much money into the EU budget, European integration makes our government weak, British culture is being eroded, etc. All campaigns are instrumental in nature – they attempt to realise some policy goal (in this case keeping the UK in the EU) – and part of a successful strategy has to be to tackle the arguments of the opposition. I fail to see how fairly wooly concepts about personal interest are going to do that in practice, even if we can make a logical case for them.

So, what do you think ?