Why the EU is losing the argument

by Stephen Tall on June 16, 2008

It’s no use blaming the Irish. If it hadn’t been they who rejected the Lisbon Treaty it would likely have been any number of other European countries if their leaders had had the guts to ask the people what they thought. The fact – which surely must now be universally acknowledged and faced up to – is that the people of Europe now no longer trust the European Union.

There are doubtless many reasons for this – a rejection of globalisation, a ‘politics of contentment’, the remoteness of Brussels, the perfidy of nationalistic media, gross failures within the EU. But I suspect the broader reason is a more conceptual one: the EU lacks a popular narrative.

The old narrative of the EU was crystal clear: to end war in Europe. For a continent scarred by centuries of warfare, and which had just emerged from the destruction – physical, economic and social – of World War II, selling the concept of a European Community of trading partners committed to peace was hardly a tough job. It was a narrative which bound European nations together in the half century after 1945.

That old narrative had been superceded by a new one: the enlargement of the EU into eastern Europe and the near Middle East. This is just as important, but much less easy to pitch to European citizens who have become accustomed to widespread (albeit not universal) peace. As Chris Patten has put it, this ‘next’ task:

… will do more than anything else we could attempt to prevent that ‘clash of civilisations’ predicted by Samuel Huntington and devoutly hoped for by extremists, especially (but not solely) Islamic ones. The reconciliation of France and Germany was the necessary and admirable European accomplishment of the twentieth century; reconciling the West and the Islamic world, with Europe acting as hinge between the two, is a major task for the twenty-first. (Not Quite the Diplomat, pp.143-44)

Indeed it is. But it is not an easy sell, as EU enlargement has and will unleash tensions: an expanded market results in winners and, at least in the short-term, also losers – with the losers inevitably shouting loudest. Turkey’s membership of the EU, so crucial to Europe’s long-term future, is regarded with deep scepticism by the EU’s two largest founders, France and Germany, each fearing the negative response of their own citizens.

If the national governments of Europe cannot find it in themselves to support the EU’s new raison d’etre, is it really so surprising that their own citizens can’t either?

Ironically, the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty reinforces the Lib Dems’ call for a referendum on the only question that matters: whether the UK should be in or out. Many saw this proposal as nothing more than a political tactic, a way of preserving party unity. And they were probably at least partly right.

And yet as time goes by the more evident it becomes that the EU is suffering a disconnect between the governing elites and the governed. I don’t buy for one moment the British public cares over-much about the nitty-gritty of the Lisbon Treaty – qualified majority voting and the number of EU commissioners – but I absolutely accept they care about the direction of the EU, and what Britain’s role in it should be. That is the only question worth debating. And it needs debating now more than ever.