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Memo David Cameron: eurosceptics aren’t really on your side

The European Union clearly has its problems. Big problems. Not just the obvious economic troubles that currently dominate the headlines, but more deep-seated issues to do with its “democratic deficit” — the way that union has been managed by elites and unaccountable bureaucrats, often running ahead of public opinion and alienating those whose support it will need in a crisis.

So its easy to understand the support in some circles for David Cameron’s refusal to travel further down the road of EU integration - a stance that he calls “protect[ing] Britain’s national interest”: “I am absolutely clear that it is possible to be a both a full, committed and influential member of the EU but to stay out of arrangements where they do not protect our interests.”

Many of those supporters claim to be all in favor of Europe as a single market, or at least a free trade zone, but say that the EU has gone too far and needs to be reined in. Critics of the EU in Australia and the US are especially prone to take this line. They see themselves quite genuinely as free marketeers and internationalists; their problem is with bureaucracy, over-regulation and lack of accountability.

And yet this position, which one might call “moderate euroscepticism”, is at best naive and at worst deeply disingenuous. Ironically enough, it is itself an elite position. The mass of eurosceptic opinion is quite different: nationalistic, protectionist, hostile in principle to free trade and economic integration.

On the continent, this has never really been in doubt. Although its roots are in mundane agreements about coal and steel, the core of the EU project has always been political - it’s about overcoming the national rivalries that have time and again plunged Europe into bloodshed. Its opponents are the defenders of old-fashioned nationalism; for them, cosmopolitanism is the enemy.

Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a presidential candidate and leader of the far right in France, is representative of the type - he reacted to the latest agreement by calling for a referendum, to let the French people “decide if we must accept the abandonment of budgetary sovereignty as well as of monetary sovereignty”.

Across the continent it’s the same story: the most trenchant opponents of the EU are the nativists of both right and left, the unreconstructed supporters of import controls, restricted immigration, “national” industries and ethnic pride. For them, capitalism is at best a necessary evil.

It’s perfectly coherent to argue, as the moderates do, that a certain amount of integration will serve the purpose of peace and prosperity, but that going too far is counter-productive — there may be a point at which further “deepening” of the EU becomes harmful, and that point may indeed have already been reached (although personally I am not convinced of this).

But that is quite different from arguing that the whole project was misguided in the first place. Yet the one argument has a disturbing habit of segueing into the other, and if you scratch a moderate eurosceptic you often find a deeper hostility lurking underneath.

Check out, for example, Conservative MP and internet sensation David Hannan, who has impeccable free-market credentials. He attacks the single currency as imperial overreach, but once he warms to the theme it becomes clear that he thinks the EU was flawed from the very start, that it was an anti-democratic project whose founders were “unapologetic about vesting supreme power in the hands of appointed commissioners who were to be invulnerable to public opinion”.

And there is an element of truth in that. But we can’t go back to the 1950s; the options for now are either to kill the EU or to live with it and try to reform it. The solution to the democratic deficit is more democracy, and it makes sense that the supporters of a democratic EU — like Cameron’s deputy, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, and his continental counterparts — are also supporters of integration.

And for all its problems, the EU’s achievements are remarkable. Joshua Goldstein last month said that: “In historical perspective, this is such a monumental, gigantic accomplishment that one wonders how we all have come to take it for granted.” Critics forget how much work has gone into getting where we are today, and how grim the alternatives are.

Hannan and the rest may think it’s possible to somehow junk the EU and start again with a more liberal model, but most people will recognise that as sheer fantasy. For all practical purposes, hostility to the EU plays into the hands of those whose objection is not so much to regulation and bureaucracy, but to free trade and free movement of people. They are the eurosceptics who have a real constituency, and Cameron is playing with fire when he tries to appease them.

The EU has many faults, but it is hated much more for its virtues. Its critics need to keep that in mind.

6
  • 1
    Bill Williams
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Excellent Charles….and absolutely, nationalistic self-interest takes a variety of forms. I suspect that a culture long born out of being isolated from Europe by the English channel blinds many Brits to the possiblity of what the EU could be with a 100% commitment from the UK including Eurozone membership. None of my British friends seem to be able to look at the EU other than in terms of the threat it represents to their perception of the UK’s self interest. Even Ed Miliband and Paddy Ashdown seem only able to look at the EU from the perspective of a more intelligent form of British nationalism: “we will be worse off out of the union”. I haven’t read anything written by a Brit that considers the possibility of how much stronger and beneficial for its members the EU could be if it had the benefit of a fully committed UK…..and that even the EU’s current difficulties might have been less significant had the EU enjoyed 100% UK support and eurozone membership. I would be very pleased to be directed to the writing of any Bristish journalist who considered the possibility that Britain’s decision to stay out of the Eurozone might have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Of course it’s not too late, at least in theory. If intelligent, good authority prevails, at this stage, two things will happen:
    1. The British will recognise that David Cameron made a terrible mistake and attempt to rectify it.
    2. The other 26 EU members will also recognise how much stronger the EU would be with a committed UK as a full member, and make it easy to welcome the UK back without too much Gallic chest thumping and Teutonic cane wielding.

    I hope that David Cameron might get to read your memo, Charles. I certainly hope that Guy Rundle does.

  • 2
    Davies Ben
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    Joseph Paul Goebbels, Nazi quotes:

    Not every item of news should be published. Rather must those who control news policies endeavor to make every item of news serve a certain purpose.

    http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/ian-birrell-like-it-or-not-the-pm-has-never-been-stronger-he-should-exploit-it-6276137.html

    after weeks of bullshit in the newspaper he can bang his fist on his chest tarzan style

    Hermann Goering, Nazi quotes:

    Why of course the people don’t want war. Why should some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally the common people don’t want war neither in Russia, nor in England, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the peacemakers for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.

    who wants to be told we are in a great depression…

    welcome to nationalism

    as i’ve said i’m not interested in arguing with cheryl or anyone who keeps spewing out newspaper garbage

  • 3
    Davies Ben
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    waiting moderation..

  • 4
    Davies Ben
    Posted Tuesday, 13 December 2011 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    6 quarters of no growth is called a depression keep selling newspapers in the cato/heritage foundation ideological manner…

    the hillsong church is our saviour

  • 5
    sebster
    Posted Wednesday, 14 December 2011 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Jean-Pierre Chevènement, a presidential candidate and leader of the
    far right in France”…

    Chevènement is from the left. Undeniably and indubitably.

    (You can tell by his glasses)

    The substance of Richardson’s analysis of J-P is however essentially
    correct.

    Cheers!

  • 6
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Sunday, 18 December 2011 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    @Bill: Thanks for that - nice to be appreciated.

    @Sebster: Yes, “far right” was probably too simplistic a description for Chevènement. He does indeed originally come from the left, but he’s fallen out with all of the mainstream left forces & I’d say his support base (such as it is) is probably now more right than left. But he defies easy classification.

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