Lets face it. People who are interested in the EU are weird. Why would a normal person care? By any standards, EU Politics is boring. Its structure is boring. The rules it makes are boring. Its politicians are, wait for it, I'll give you three guesses, boring, boring and boring.
And yet, you cannot pick up a newspaper in any EU country without coming across some rant from one political stand point or another. The EU is usurping our sovereignty! The EU stealing our fish! The EU brings us peace! The EU is the last, best hope for humanity!
Clearly something is going on that causing people to make a fuss. And it is not really to do with EU politics - it is about national politics and the effect of EU integration upon nation-states.
The Paranoid Euro-sceptics
Lets start with the Europhobes, because, face it, they are more exciting. Genuine Prophets of Doom. They imagine the EU as an evil empire conquering by stealth, sucking power from democratic assemblies to the imperial headquarters of Brussels. Now they may only be making our tomatoes square, but next thing you know, they will be banning the Union Jack, and before you know it, crowds of patriotic Britons will be marching for the freedom to love their country only to be brutally suppressed by legions of soulless riot police, possibly all clones of Nazi Storm Troopers, sent of course by Wilhelm II, back from the dead to rule his new Empire.
Okay, I’m exaggerating, but not by much. I’ve heard my fellow little Englanders claim they fear everything up till (and including) the clones. Some level of concern about foreign invasion is natural. Anyone who has mourned the demise of the English red squirrel must realise what a fragile eco-system we live in. But politics is no place for sentimentality.
Others claim excessive emphasis of school history lessons on Nazi Germany, to the exclusion of any mention of what modern Europe is about, means young adults today have no idea of what the EU is nor where it comes from, and view their fellow Europeans as having a propensity to extremism. This to some extent is true. The focus upon the world wars is somewhat unnecessary – there are plenty of more contemporary examples of the rise of extremists, history students would do better to study the demise of Yugoslavia. Or if they must focus on the 1930s, why not mention Oswald Mosley?
The Starry Eyed Euro-visionaries
The opposite extreme to paranoid Europhobes are the young, starry eyed internationalists with a utopian vision of the EU becoming some kind of an international government, which will bring people together so they all love one another. Oddly, the same group also wants the EU to become a super power which can challenge the United States on the world stage. Really, the two aims should not be compatible: peace and love on the one hand, and decades of high military expenditure and research into new weapons and methods of projecting death and destruction on the other.
These Euro-visionaries fail to grasp a few unpleasant realities. Although they fairly accurately point out how unique the “European Experiment” is, an example of Nation-States giving away their own power, for some reason the undemocratic nature my which it is taking place fails to dampen their enthusiasm. The same goes for the widespread unpopularity of integration, strongest in the Northern States, Britain, Denmark and Sweden, but spread throughout the continent.
I would like to add a third group to this:
As well as ideologues strongly in favour or against integration, there are also a lot of pragmatists, especially here in the UK. The shadowy operations of the European Commission and Council of Ministers especially, and the absurd rules the EU tends to generate have led to a common perception that the whole structure is badly corrupt, and even that its have only ever been about money laundering. (Who could possibly benefit from €500 notes except drug dealers, tax evaders, gangsters and human traffickers? Do normal people buy their cars and houses with cash? Are finance ministers trying to facilitate international debt settlements, by making it easier to carry large amounts of hard currency around in briefcases?)
Yet at the same time there is wide spread appreciation that it does have economic benefits. People are aware that free trade is good for industry, and there is some benefit in harmonizing product standards and such like. This is while Britain’s government, under both Labour and Conservative governments for the past ten years have been determined to not make a decision about entering the single currency without seeing how it works in practise. Decisions should be taken by looking at the real costs and benefits to the nation, not by appealing to emotion or high ideals.
I used to be in the second camp, of the starry-eyed Eurovisionaries. However, time has taken its toll, and I now recognise that the EU is a rather inadequate utopian dream. It is used by national governments to centralise power, and as a scapegoat for bad policies for which they themselves are responsible. The single currency is despoiled by feckless monetarist economics, the supra-nation governing structure is plagued by bitter infighting over vested national interests, and the Union's external policies are a mess. I will not even bother to go into the Common Agricultural Policy.
Yet these are the problems of any federal system. It is not a reason to abandon the project altogether. Rather, it is the reason we need to make it work. Until we succeed, however, it would be unwise to give more power to its flawed institutions. And I would not want to touch the single currency with a barge pole before it is purged of the monetarist disease. The Parliament needs a better voting system, which will let voters pick candidates and not just parties, and the Council of Ministers needs to be far more transparent, so electorates can know exactly what their leaders argued for, and can demand to know why. This, I believe, would make for a better Union, and justify closer integration, so we can all come together, love each other and be happy.
I hope I haven’t dampened anyone’s idealism. But I have aimed to cover all three stereotypical attitudes I have come across, and why I agree with the third. If there are any important points you think I’ve missed, message me, or better still, add your own write-up!
Catchpole has asked me to make it clearer that I am talking about UK perceptions. I actually think many of the perceptions I am describing are more widespread than that. Of couse, most of the "euro-visionaries" are from continental europe. And I do think the euro-realist additudes are becoming more common outside the UK, the recession in Eurozone is causing people to take what politicians say about integration and the Euro with a pinch of salt.