Is it really so terrible for Britain to have a different vision for Europe?

By Igor Merheim-Eyre, University of Kent

In May 1950, at the height of the Cold War, Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of the European Union, offered his vision for the future. Following the devastation of the World War II, he said the future of Europe “cannot be safeguarded without … creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”.

However, he also famously warned: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan”.

What happened to those aspirations? Today, the EU lacks leadership. Frustration is growing within the union and the group is failing to make a positive impact beyond its own borders. Brexit, Grexit, economic stagnation, youth unemployment and uncontrolled migration – all are threatening this partnership.

At the core of this problem is the fundamentally dangerous belief that the EU can become some kind of a promised land. In fact, too few people are actually questioning the EU integration project as an end in itself – its aims, its intentions and, above all, the impact on those “creative efforts” that Schuman argued had to be at the heart of European integration.

Instead, the EU has become a victim of its own agenda. The people who spent decades arguing that the enlightened European project will solve problems beyond the reach of sovereign states now see no other future but the “ever closer union” enshrined in the EU treaties. In this logic, alternatives have no place in Europe. It must now be built all at once and according to a single plan.

When the Irish rejected the Lisbon Treaty in 2008, they were merely asked to vote again. When the Greeks overwhelmingly rejected the terms of the bailout in 2015, prime minister Alexis Tsipras was merely summoned to Brussels and forced to sign the terms anyway, and when the Visegrad countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) complained that the Schengen rules on border protection were being ignored by other member states, they were portrayed as xenophobic wall-builders.

The Brexit debate is another good example. It is not that I believe the UK should leave the EU – it’s that the arguments for staying in (including my own) do need to be questioned. But instead of having a real debate, exit is perceived as a lunacy, or even British bullying of the “good” Europeans. How could anyone possibly want to willingly live outside this great project? No state could possibly want to be, like Norway, on the outskirts of Europe.

Protestors in Greece reject EU medicine.
EPA/Orestis Panagiotou

The consequences could indeed be dire if the British people do vote to leave but what concerns me more is the belief that more integration is the only rational remedy to the crises threatening the world. More EU on the external borders, more EU in monetary affairs, more EU in defence.

I do not believe that the UK’s leave campaign has the right answers, but at least it is raising questions.

It makes perfect sense that members of the European Union should submit to certain conditions, such as democratic governance. If you wish to join any club, whether it involves your weekly game of squash or a monetary union, you have to abide by the rules. But clubs generally provide different membership options, and those options generally depend more on members’ willingness than the club’s expectations.

Crushing dissent

Unfortunately, a union set on simply promoting a singular vision of the future (however bright) merely breeds intolerance to alternative visions, despite the fact that the EU’s very motto stresses “unity in diversity”.

A UK membership re-negotiation is a symbol of this intolerance. It is all too easy to accuse London of being the awkward partner, but there are plenty of those in Brussels who appreciate the constructive role British representatives play in day-to-day decision-making. On issues of security and defence, for example, Britain never shies away from responsibility, including the EU’s successful anti-piracy operation off the Somali coast.

However, it is true that the UK has been historically uneasy about the “ever-closer union”. In fact, it has resisted it on a number of occasions (the euro being a particular case).

And bow to your partner.

Resisting does not mean striking down the Brussels leviathan. It just means imagining different visions of Europe, playing closer attention to the needs, interests and, indeed, different understandings of how Europe ought to be achieved. Economists these days seem to be in consensus that fitting German or Greek economies under the same monetary policy was a historically symbolic move, but an economic catastrophe. Similarly, that the UK is more interested in deepening the single market instead of promoting the vague European citizenship does not make it an awkward partner, but rather one with a different vision of where a more effective Europe can be built.

It’s time to recognise that the future of the EU is not threatened by allowing divergent voices to contribute to the debate but in seeking conformity. Each club needs rules, but these rules are important only as long as they stimulate productivity or creativity. As soon as they seek to control, they become a hindrance and a threat to the system they are trying to uphold.

As history has taught us, a singular vision of the future can have dangerous consequences. Let’s forget the quest for obedience. The aim, instead, must be to stop touting the ever-closer union as the only option. That’s how to revive our thinking about what Europe is and what it can and should become.

The Conversation

Igor Merheim-Eyre, Doctoral Researcher, University of Kent

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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One thought on “Is it really so terrible for Britain to have a different vision for Europe?

  1. Internationalist

    The “alternative” vision for the EU articulated by the British mainstream (both media and politics) is a banal application of neoliberal, free-marketeering orthodoxy. The UK has been one of the most consistent champions of that orthodoxy over the last decades (with all the caveats rendered necessary by the fact that when push comes to shove the British people are as attached to public services as their neighbours). The article, with the implication that Europe’s goals should be to “stimulate productivity or creativity” (two neoliberal buzzwords, the latter an euphemism for the former), rehashes the dogma.

    To pretend that this orthodoxy — nothing less than the hegemonic global paradigm of our epoch– has been silenced by the EU’s “quest for obedience” is just silly. In particular, given that for the last twenty years or so the EU itself has been more concerned with implementing market-friendly policies than with an “ever-closer union“.

    -“At the core of [the EU’s] problem is the fundamentally dangerous belief that the EU can become some kind of a promised land.”

    The author is playing a tedious game of “British eurosceptic bingo”, going with the above statement for your bog-standard “accusation of dangerous utopianism”. The EU has always aimed for the gradual development of a form of transnational citizenship. This –transnational citizenship– has been in fact at least as common in human history as the notion of national citizenship which we tend to take for granted. What is novel and inspiring –and yet distinctly “non-utopian”– is that this transnational citizenship is to be founded on humanistic, democratic principles (as opposed to, say, the “res publica Christiana” of the Holy Roman Empire or the “dar-es Islam” of the Ottomans).

    On a more basic level, the EU’s problems have far less to do with the “ever-closer union” thingie than with the general demoralisation associated with the effects of neoliberal globalisation. This is borne out by the fact that the EU is far from the world’s only polity that’s undergoing a crisis.

    -“Economists these days seem to be in consensus that fitting German or Greek economies under the same monetary policy was a historically symbolic move, but an economic catastrophe…“

    The consensus is that the austerity policies –themselves a variation on the neoliberal leitmotif– imposed after 2008 were a disaster. Given the parlous state of the economics discipline (what was the consensus on “financial innovation“ prior to 2008?), I wouldn’t take my conclusions much further.

    The British vision for the EU is, as stated, banal, opportunistic and fundamentally negative. This has been on display during Cameron’s trip to Brussels, where he has hammered out a deal to deny benefits to internal EU migrants, opt out from social legislation and the like.

    Since the article is an articulation –a reasonable one, as it were– of a negative vision, it is fitting that its most salient feature is an omission. The disaffection of the British elite towards the EU (one that is passed on, via politics and the media, to the broader public) stems from the fact that when asking the most basic, most banal of neoliberal questions, “what’s in it for me?“, the EU comes up short compared to the US. There is “some kind of promised land“ for ambitious Britons after all, one in which a sonorous accent can allow them to become purveyors of what we might call “challenging flattery“ for the locals.

    Given how many notorious Britons have become shameless enablers of American conventional wisdom over the last decades (after the requisite courtship ritual in which the alleged vulgarity of Americans is gently skewered, before American exceptionalism is affirmed), the British elite’s purported attachment to the primacy of the nation state in politics seems to provide a less satisfactory explanation for British euroscepticism than the above crude utilitarian calculus.

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