It’s only through studying the European Union that the absurdity of many eurosceptics’ positions has become apparent to me. An instinctive pro-European, I’ve never seen much allure in the idea that the more independence our arbitrarily-defined nation state possesses the better. More can be achieved as part of a whole, resources can be pooled, neighbouring countries can stop pointing guns at each other, and point them at some other common enemy, perhaps a country where the people have a different skin colour or religion. However, recently my concerns have become more codified.
My account of polling day for the local elections last year, on this very blog, included a description of a three hour conversation I held with a man running to be a councillor for UKIP. Quite why a party concerned primarily with the UK’s position within the EU contests local elections is another issue, but part way through the conversation he described the beauty of capitalism in that it is a self-adjusting and extremely complex and intricate system of resource allocation. It struck me odd then, as now, that someone would support the free movement of resources in almost every area, and demand the government simply allow capitalism to mould society as demand dictates, yet hold such opposition to the free movement of labour in the form of relaxed borders and immigration. Presumably in a capitalist world, the free movement of labour is crucial if it is to be optimally efficient.
This being said, I take more issue with the criticisms of the EU itself. It’s absolutely true that the European Union has a democratic deficit. There is only one directly elected body, the European Parliament, which has little power, comparable in terms of its scrutinising and legislation-delaying role to the British House of Lords, a fact which is often trumpeted by eurosceptics explain why the EU is unaccountable. But what these critics fail to acknowledge is the correlation between the amount of power an organisation has and the amount of democratic legitimacy it requires. No one would seriously suggest, I assume, that every time an international treaty is formed, it should require an elected international assembly between the relevant countries, and it’s important to remember that this is how the EU was formed and developed: by individual treaties. It’s wrong to view it as a static organisation that was designed with the powers it currently has, as well as the lack of democratic accountability it currently has. The EU is a continuing project and has been changing and developing for the last fifty years. The democratic deficit is something that, if eurosceptics would shut up and let the EU carry on changing rather than blocking every new treaty or constitution, will be addressed in time. It’s not sensible to argue for more democracy in the EU without also believing it should have sufficient power to warrant elections and democratic accountability. The way the EU has developed has led to the current state of a slightly higher power to accountability ratio than would be ideal, but this should change in time.
Both the Lisbon Treaty and the failed constitution of 2004 (both opposed by eurosceptics) wanted more powers to the European Parliament, to match the EU’s increasing legislative role. It is, of course, true that the EU is getting more say over more aspects of our lives, and as a result should be accountable to the European people, so why eurosceptics would oppose these moves is uncertain.
And at the other end of the spectrum, eurosceptics believe countries are losing their independence, which would surely be more so if there was a stronger supranationalist parliament, rather than the current reliance on intergovernmental institutions. The areas of the EU in which countries retain most of their independence are the Council of Ministers and the European Council, which are the negotiating forums of representatives of member governments who act in the interests of their people. On major treaties and so-called “higher” policy areas such as defence and foreign policy, member states exercise a veto, so no country is expected to sign up to things it disagrees with. For people who object to the removal of power from nation states, these appear to be pretty good measure to ensure sovereignty is retained. It’s impossible to have an EU that’s both perfectly democratic, and gives paramount importance to national governments.
So what frustrates me most about the eurosceptics is wanting to attack, on the one hand, the lack of independence of member states, and when the intergovernmental negotiating forums are mentioned as an answer to this, they change their focus to democratic accountability, which they opposed the improvement of in the form of opposition to any new treaty that comes from Brussels, and fail to realise that there’s no use in having a democratically elected parliament if it has no powers.
This circular logic is not grounded in reason, but in a deep protectionism and a general dislike for the idea of their country being a part of a whole rather than an end in itself. It’s a position born out of nationalism, and nationalism alone.