Radosław Sikorski, Polish Foreign Minister, is rapidly gaining a reputation across Europe as a man who speaks his mind. Whether he’s telling the Germans that he worries about their inaction on the eurozone crisis, or the British that they suffer from ‘false consciousness’ about EU membership, he appears unafraid to say the things that others think.

This is to be applauded, both generally and specifically. Generally, we have come to associate politicians with flatterers, telling us what they think we want to hear, playing the percentages, rather than giving us a realistic judgement on what is possible and/or desirable. Specifically, after five years of a financial crisis characterised as much by half-hearted interventions as anything else, it is refreshing to have someone in a position of responsibility to tell it like it is.

The Oxford-educated Mr Sikorski would of course recognise the classical allusion of the title, the owl of knowledge that flies at dusk. Perhaps his lucidity can be read as a belated understanding of the situation that is reaching a conclusion, even if neither the situation nor the conclusion are entirely clear yet.

Or perhaps not. One of the seeming constants of the European integration process has been the general unhappiness that surrounds interventions by one country’s politicians in the affairs of another: no one likes being told what to do. The only exception that springs to mind is the current intervention by the EU in Bulgarian and Romanian politics, and even then that’s hardly uncontested. At best, such intervention is politely received and then ignored; at worst, it becomes ‘meddling’ or ‘manipulating.’

With that in mind, the minister has done well, probably because his style is not hectoring but disappointed and his analysis is fair and even-handed.

However, there still lingers a doubt in my mind. His speeches put me in mind of a pre-war doctor, telling his patient with a psychological condition to ‘pull yourself together, man.’ This might appeal to British common-sense and pragmatism, but it rather neglects the question of whether the patient has any agency. A modern doctor would be talking about structured intervention to help the patient understand their condition and to help themself out of it.

The whole point of ‘false consciousness’ is surely that it is delusional and broadly resilient. One man’s views will not change that, however astute those views might be. Instead, we need to think about how we can create the conditions for the necessary changes to take place, and then work towards making them happen.

Mr Sikorski talks a lot of sense, but it can only be a starting point: it is up to the rest of us to move things forward.

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It’s autumn apparently, which means party conference season is almost upon us. Hence it was slightly less surprising to see Nigel Farage beaming out of the morning papers today (Guardian and Telegraph).

Less surprising because UKIP has had a good summer, polling well (and often above the LibDems) and benefiting from the unwillingness of other parties’ leaderships (if not backbenches) to discuss the EU and from the general malaise around politics as a whole. Their strong European election performances will doubtless continue in 2014 and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they increase their votes in a general election.

However, the boosterish statements from Farage and the game-changing pronouncements from newspaper commentators need to be taken with a pinch of salt: the party is confronted by a number of fundamental handicaps. 

Firstly, the public simply isn’t focused on the EU to anything like the same extent as bread-and-butter issues like the economy, health and education.  Even immigration, the other big area of UKIP’s profile, isn’t quite the heat topic it was in recent years.

Secondly, the party lacks a positive ideological core.  Its scepticism about the EU is a negative, a dislike, rather than a coherent plan of action. Its other policies are most generously described as pragmatic populism, predicated primarily on a vast unleashing on economic and fiscal potential by withdrawing from the EU: it is not the programme of a party that is positioning itself as regierungsfaehig.

Thirdly, UKIP lacks depth of resources.  While this week’s fine of Farage for his comments about van Rompuy will not break the bank in the way that the Electoral Commission nearly did last year, it still highlights the relative scarcity of income streams. In addition, the party has not developed a wider cadre of leaders and organisers beyond Farage. This hampers their performance in the more organisationally-decentralised elections for the Commons.

In short, they confront the same issues as the Greens and other protest or anti-system parties before them: how to break into the mainstream. Without the European Parliament it is hard to see how the party could have survived at all, but that platform is clearly insufficient to let it achieve its aims. But the Brighton strategy employed by the Greens in 2010 does not seem to be open to them, having failed to find a locale that has sufficient depth of support to underpin a realistic bid to win a Westminister seat.

If UKIP is to overcome these barriers, then the next couple of years will be vital, in maintaining momentum, in build support and resources and in moving away from their self-positioning as outsiders.  That will come at a cost to the party’s identity and no one knows if they are ready to pay it.

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A popular supposition of academics is that we live in an age of problem-solving, where political actors bypass traditional hierarchical structures to focus on resolving particular issues in a flexible and pragmatic way. And in many cases, that is true.

However, yesterday’s ‘super Wednesday‘ – with the German Constitutional Court’s decision on ESM, Barroso’s State of the EU speech to the EP and the Dutch general election – highlights the way in which the EU still has not fully embraced this approach.

Two of the three events were essentially about avoiding problems, not solving them. The Court’s ruling on the ESM had the potential to completely block the longer-term arm of the EU’s response to the eurozone crisis, or at least impose painful restrictions on the German government. In the end, those restrictions were at the gentler end of the spectrum (although Merkel can expect more awkward debates in the Bundestag over the next year).  Likewise, the shift away from the eurosceptic PVV in the Netherlands was hailed in some quarters as a vindication of pro-EU policies, while ignoring the obvious difficulties of any Liberal-Labour coalition and the embrace of more critical discourse on the euro across the Dutch debate.

So some bullets dodged. Only for Barroso to provide what sceptics could easily portray as a maximalist position on further integration (bolstered by van Rompuy’s ‘Issues paper‘ today) and some new hurdles to be overcome.

The danger that the EU faces is essentially one of a lack of purposive action. Politics might be the art of the possible, but it also requires direction and leadership. With so many of the key actors either covering their backs or pushed their own agendas without reference to each other, the potential for substantive and substantial action is much reduced. As I have argued many times before on this blog, there is a need for something more than what we have, if the fundamental economic and political challenges facing the Union are to be addressed.

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This week I have been engaging in a number of thought-provoking discussions with academic colleagues at the UACES annual conference, held this year in Passau. As well as my main interests in euroscepticism and in learning & teaching, I also found the Euro-crisis as a recurrent theme underlying much of what we all were looking at. In particular, the depth, scope and length of the crisis has been forcing all of us in the European Studies community to reconsider some basics of integration.

Today’s announcement by Mario Draghi of further bond buying is typical of the current situation: a policy initiative that is both substantial and yet ultimately reactive. Actors on all sides of the debate pronounce on the causes of the crisis and the solutions, without the discovery of mutually-acceptable common ground. With the financial markets providing instantaneous feedback on developments, policy makers find themselves severely constrained. This is most obviously the case in the tension between balancing short-term action to reanimate European economies and the moves to build longer-term structures that will avoid the problem happening again.

All of this leads to crisis becoming a mode of governance: the late nights, the harried press conferences, the browbeaten ‘colleagues’, the contagion of problems across policy areas. Perhaps worst of all is that all this effort goes largely unremarked by the average citizen: one colleague in Passau reported that her group of undergraduates had been very sorry not to have solved the crisis in their 2 hour simulation of the Council, not having reflected on what had happened in the real world!

This is not sustainable: too many people are too caught up in trying to find something, anything that will ease the economic, social and political pain of the situation, not taking the time to step back and look up to the wider view. I hesitate to say that academics would be important in this - since they have only recently started to mobilise themselves to researching, analysing and concluding – but they can certainly play a role.

The coming months are unlikely to see a new consensus emerging, for the same reasons that a consensus has not emerged so far: domestic constraints of party politics and economic austerity, European constraints of institutional architectures, and global constraints of the markets. But it is perhaps a good point at which to think hard about how we can move away from the crisis mode to one that is less fraught and more positive.

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