In response to Barroso’s State of the Union address today, leader of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament Guy Verhofstadt resorted to his tired old line. The pro-European forces should unite against Euroscepticism, he said, and this will define 2014 European Parliament election campaign. Verhofstadt has been saying this sort of thing since 2009 at least. It was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.
That is why the blog entry has the title it does - it’s pointless to describe oneself as a pro-European.
For a start how can you be pro a continent? That might be stretching it a bit, as I suppose it is OK to conclude that pro-European actually means pro-EU. But even then what does that actually mean? Am I pro-Westminster? Or pro-Landtag Mecklenburg-Vorpommern?
I use that to explain the problem in framing terms. Verhofstadt is setting out the fundamental dividing line as being about the European Union itself, not what he (or indeed his political opponents) want the European Union to be.
To put it another way, to argue using the pro-European / Eurosceptic frame sets you on a path to arguing about more or less EU, or in or out of the EU. It also leads to a way of explaining the EU that sounds like the EU we have is the only sort of EU we could have, and that to be a pro-European is to hence be a defender of the status quo.
So in a sense I am a pro-European, in that I want the EU to exist. Just as in the same way as I am pro-Westminster and pro-Landtag Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. But I am not going to ever make speeches on that basis, nor am I going to put that at the centre of my beliefs.
I am instead a social democrat, a social liberal, and an environmentalist, and a federalist, and I try to put those principles into practice as far as I can, including at EU level, and I would advocate that people like Verhofstadt try to do the same (if they do indeed have any ideology any more).
To illustrate the point, I have had interesting debates with Declan Ganley on Twitter about tax harmonisation versus tax competition within the European Union. Ganley is a free market liberal, and believes that within the European Union states should be allowed to set their own tax rates, and if this gives a state a tax advantage over another one – on corporation tax for example – so be it. I believe tax competition is a bad thing, and forces a race to the bottom when companies can easily choose their location. For me, as a social democrat, tax harmonisation has to be the solution. This debate between Ganley and I is a matter of ideology, a matter of values, and being pro-European or Eurosceptic has no bearing on it at all. Yet for Verhofstadt people like Ganley and I should be on the same side in the European Parliament elections – that is clearly absurd. The European Parliament elections should be fought exactly on these sorts of issues, giving the European Union concrete meaning but drawing on ideology, rather than slipping into the easy but limited frames politicians have used for decades about the EU.