Over the past year, I have been working with various colleagues across Europe to produce a special issue of the Journal of Common Market Studies on Euroscepticism.  This week, the issue became available on Early View, including the article that I co-authored with Nick Startin (Bath) as an opening argument, on “Euroscepticism as a Persistent Phenomenon.”

In it, we argue that in the two decades since the emergence of the European Union at Maastricht there has been a concerted attempt to build a European political space, typified by the debates on constitutionalization and democratization. Much less noticed, but no less important, has been the mobilization of publics, interest groups and political parties against the integration process. In the light of the failure to realize the Laeken objectives, the stabilization of an anti-integration bloc in the European Parliament, recurrent ‘no’ votes in national referendums and the emergence of an increasingly co-ordinated movement of critical interest groups, it is argued that this opposition has become embedded and persistent, at both European and national levels. This will have considerable consequences for the Union itself and the way it has chosen to largely ignore sceptical voices to date.

This leads on to articles on a wide range of contemporary manifestations of scepticism: from the global financial crisis to public opinion in new member states, from party politics to the potential for an engagement with pro-Europeans.

Behind the project lies an intention of building engagement more generally: without this, there cannot be a stable long-term development of the European Union.  With this in mind, I’ve also been busy organising some events on this theme.

Firstly, tonight, I am ‘in conversation’ with my co-author Nick Startin on the impact of the eurozone crisis on euroscepticism, here at the University of Surrey. Everyone’s welcome and it’s free, but you’ll need to register here: http://crisisintheeurozone-efbevent.eventbrite.co.uk/.

Secondly, I’m been working with the European Parliament office in London on an event on 21  November for Parliament Week, entitled “Democracy listens to dissent – what have eurosceptics done for the EU?”.  Here we’re going to be bringing together some different eurosceptic perspectives for a debate, to see where any common ground might exist. More details and (free) registration here: http://www.europarl.org.uk/view/en/Events/EP_Events_2012/Parliament_week.html

I hope you enjoy the special issue and that we can get you along to our events.

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William Hague gave a rare speech on the EU this week. Entitled “Europe at a crossroads: what kind of Europe do we want?”, he sought to map out some of the major challenges the EU faces, having sung the praises of the Single Market.

These he listed as: differentiated integration; democratic legitimacy; and division of competences. Obviously, these overlap and are in turn mediated through particular projects. Hague’s representation of the British stance on the Eurozone crisis highlighted the very difficult position of being an interested by-stander: “Clearly the Eurozone’s current structures are not working. We respect the democratic decision of the countries of the Eurozone to preserve it.  That will require changes. We know the options. It is not for Britain to tell you what the exact remedy should be.” It’s akin to the old Harry Enfield sketch of the “only me!” man: he might be right to point out problems, but it’s not the best way to build lasting relationships.

Hague noted deep public disillusionment with the EU and feeling that it was a one-way ratchet of centralisation: “If we cannot show that decision-making can flow back to national parliaments then the system will become democratically unsustainable.” This was all seized on by some media as a veiled threat to the EU of withdrawal, but that is a hopeful, rather than an accurate reading. Certainly, it seems somewhat willful on Hague’s part, given the Lisbon provisions on national parliaments.

My perspective is that this was a speech about laying down markers, without constraining action. Hague mentioned Single Market reform, the budget negotiations, the JHA opt-out (presented here as “re-balancing”), all to make the point that these areas can be conceptualised in a more pro-EU way, as helping the Union to resolve those basic challenges.  Even the Review of Competences was presented as a means to improving European governance, rather than a prelude to renegotiation or withdrawal.

More notably, the speech didn’t set out a major new agenda or policy: it was a placeholder. The “embracing of diversity” that ran through the speech has been a staple of Foreign Secretaries’ contributions for decades now. Instead, it highlights the primacy of internal Conservative party politics in guiding debate. Just as the ECHR ruling on votes for prisoners is showing, any constructive engagement is shouted down by backbenchers, while the Cabinet struggles to find a modus vivendi.

It’s hard to see how this can change within the current parliament: sadly, the rest of the EU might not be on the same schedule.

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In recent weeks I’ve been working on a new edition of  ‘The European Union: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP, all good bookshops, etc…), since one of two things have happened since the 2007 edition came out.

The exercise has been a good one for me, asking me to step back from the more parochial concerns of my various research interests and consider the bigger picture of European integration.

Indeed, it has forced me to ask how I understand and frame the current situation, which looks decidedly poor. An economic and financial crisis that has run almost uninterrupted since the previous edition came out; the constitutionalisation project laid out at Laekendashed on the reefs of public opinion and elite non-engagement; a stalling of the EU’s role as a global leader in environmental protection and trade liberalisation; even a questioning of fundamental aspects of the EU, such as free movement. All of these can be taken as emblematic of the Union’s downfall and collapse. Certainly, to read of the constant disagreements about such key actions as supporting failing Eurozone economies and to witness civil unrest on the streets of more than one capital city makes it hard to be optimistic.

And yet, I have found myself being just that. The basic logic of integration, of working together to find common solutions to common problems, and of providing mutual support in a globalising world, still holds true.

This is not to say it’s pretty or cost-free, but rather that the underlying necessity remains and ultimately I have confidence that this will work its way through. I recall that the Union has had a history littered with failures: the European Defence Community; the Empty-Chair crisis; British renegotiation of the treaty and then the budget; ERM’s collapse; the Constitutional Treaty (indeed, all treaties since Maastricht). This should suggest that there is a capacity to find solutions in the longer-term, even if it has made some rather blase about stumbling into a new crisis.

One could argue that ‘this time it’s different’, given the scale and scope of the problems and of the potential solutions and one would have to concede this to some extent: even what has been agreed so far, from the SixPack to the EFSF and ESM (opening its doors this week) to the Fiscal Compact – all will have far-reaching impacts on the lives of millions, both inside and outside the Eurozone. But this should not mean that no solution is possible. If we look around, we might find a number of more positive signs.

Firstly, we see an emerging debate about strengthen economic and fiscal union, which has the potential to resolve some of the fundamental challenges posed to the Eurozone. Secondly, we see that solidarity between member states does remain: Merkel’s visit to Athens was intended to support, not undermine, the Greek government (albeit with limited success). Thirdly, we see how David Cameron has evaded a definitive commitment to a British referendum, suggesting an understanding of the potentially very deep costs that could incur.

So as I have turned to the book’s conclusions, I have largely retained their positive tone, for I do genuinely feel both that solutions are possible and that those solutions will involve an European Union that continues to play a significant role in our lives.

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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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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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William Hague’s statement on an audit of EU powers today marks the end of a little run of developments in Conservative policy on the EU, as well as presaged the opening of a new round of what we might hopefully call ‘debate’ on the subject.

On Tuesday, the Fresh Start Group published its long-trailed ‘Green Paper’ on renegotiatingUK membership.  The paper itself represents one of the most developed pieces of research that has been conducted by a sceptic group, with an extensive discussion of options set out with a traffic light coding, to be taken to a next stage of deliberation.

The document is typical of the current face of eurosceptic approaches in the UK.  Rather than framing the debate as being about “In versus out”, it instead talks about the need to renegotiate membership, because (in the words of George Eustice on the PM programme that same day):

“Europe is at a crossroads – part of the problem we have at the moment is that the euro is failing and the process of European integration is starting to throw up all sorts of problems and it’s brought the EU to the brink and I think it’s very important therefore that […] we also get our approach on this particular issue right.”

This sounds rather reasonable and pragmatic, until one reads the document.  Of the 70+ suggestions, all of the green (‘measures that can be achieved without renegotiation’) are effectively current UK policy in any case; most of the yellow (‘measures required renegotiation’) appear effectively impossible, with repeated notes that such discussions have previously encountered deep resistance from other member states; and the red (‘unilateral breaking of treaty obligations’) are all illegal under public international law.  In short, none of them seem to be options.

Fresh Start’s plan is that following debate on their Green Paper, they produce a White Paper with a definitive list, which they will then lobby the government to pursue, with a referendum on the final outcome of renegotiations.  But the discussion of the Green Paper will be on the basis solely of comments from “Conservative MPs, Peers and MEPs”, i.e. a purely partisan debate.  The only point where the public are permitted to have a say is after everything is done and dusted, a position which jars with the long push from eurosceptics to ‘give the people a say.’

Moreover, despite the long discussion of options, there is hardly anything on why other member states should give anything to the UK. Mention is made in passing of the value of access to the UKeconomy and to the potential leverage offered by the need for treaty reform on economic governance, but with no substance to back that up. As I have discussed before, theUK has squandered any opportunity to engage positively with the eurozone crisis, and it is hard to see how turning up inBrussels with Fresh Start’s ‘shopping list’ of demands would improve that.

The Tory leadership finds itself in a difficult position, with a rebellious backbench that increasingly sees the LibDems as forcing them to compromise on fundamental issues (the EU, Lords reform, etc.).  By contrast, Cameron, Osborne and Hague have to manage an on-going relationship with other European capitals and retain some control over their party.

Hague in particular is caught on the horns of a dilemma.  He wrote a foreword the Green Paper, even if one can hear the deep ambivalence in phrases such as:

“I congratulate the Fresh Start Project and all its contributors on the publication of this Green Paper, which does just that. It is a considerable piece of work with many interesting ideas that deserves and will receive proper consideration.”

In announcing a comprehensive audit of EU powers, Hague presumably hopes to park this particular thrust from a group that contains several of the most vociferous voices on the EU in the party.  Coming just before the recess and with a planned completion date of 2014, this is not been given a top priority: no one looks particularly keen to rush into a negotiating room.  The eurosceptic camp will know this and will want to push the issue soon, while they feel that they have leverage, so this is a dog that will continue to be deprived any sleep.

In his PM interview, Eustice was asked whether he was ‘banging on about Europe’ (as per Cameron’s 2006 speech), to which he gave a telling reply:

“I don’t think we are, because what we are saying here – and I’m someone who thinks that there are many more important issues to the public, like the economy – that’s number one, that’s got to be our focus – there are issues like welfare reform and education, which are very high priorities for this government, and rightly so […] Now I don’t think that means banging on about Europe but it does mean having the right position on Europe” (emphasis added)

As we have seen, there is plenty of debate about those other issues and those debates have shown that we don’t necessarily have ‘the right position’ on any of them.  However, it’s only ‘Europe’ that is getting this treatment: The Tories’ internal conflict on the EU continues.


UPDATE 13/07/2012

Since writing the post, I’ve been able to talk with FCO officials, who stressed the Hague’s audit (full details here) was solely about raising knowledge of the situation, to allow all involved to make more informed contributions.  In addition, as Hague was at pains to underline in the Commons, the audit does not presuppose any particular course of action, nor any commitment to renegotiation, etc.  These are potentially very positive contributions to what has been a low standard of debate for too long.  The only question is how long the government can keep its impartiality on the process.

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There is an embarrassment of riches that could be discussed this week, even under this heading: from ACTA to referenda, the issue of the EU seems to be gaining media profile, if not public interest.

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My German colleagues were certain: Germany was going to kick Greece out of the euro: but which one? I considered it unprecedented luck being in Berlin on the day of the Greece v. Germany football match for the semis of the Euro 2012 championships, during my participation at the EPSA annual conference. Walking alongside the former East and West Cold War borders, fans had been gathering by the Brandenburg Gate early on to watch the game on the big screens. I was surrounded by thousands of Germans in full attire of flags, face paint and other team paraphernalia and had to remain under the radar about my national identity. The outcome of the game was humbling but the excuse was that a small team like Greece was taking up one of the strongest teams in the world. Nonetheless, the message on the posters on Karl-Marx Allee was clear the following day: Ouzo and Out! (Yet still in the Eurozone.)

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Dear Chancellor Merkel,


I am writing to ask you to rethink your insistence upon extreme austerity as the cure for the Euro-zone’s economic problems. If you do not change your mind, and if you do not work to make such a shift politically possible in your country, you risk deepening the crisis to such an extent that it will engulf the global economy.

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