Writing in The Guardian under the headline ‘Why I am no longer a European’ Max Hastings explains why, though he remains committed to the idea of Europe, he can no longer support the Constituion. His feelings, I think, represent a growing tendency of people throughout current and future members of the EU to support the ideal of European unity and integration but not necessarily the way in which it is currently being carried out.
It’s a grouping in which I would tentatively include myself and, I suspect, several of my colleagues here on AFOE. The problem comes, I think, from the fact that while there is a growing sense of a common European cultural identity, it’s in danger of being swamped by an overly techno-bureaucratic notion of integration being imposed from above. I’m planning a separate post on European cultural and national identities (hopefully it’ll be done before Christmas) so for now I’ll just look at the main points of Hastings’ article.
I think the sentiments of Hastings’ argument could be called ‘alter-European’ in the same way as campaigners against the current form of globalisation, though not the principle of it, now use the term ‘alter-globalist’ or ‘alter-globalisation’ to show they’re looking for an alternative way rather than an outright rejection.
Faith in Britain’s destiny in Europe has been at the core of my own convictions all my adult life. Yet, suddenly, I find myself hitting the buffers. I can no longer support the government’s case for signing up to the European constitution. This week, I join the referendum campaigners.
This does not, I hope, mean becoming a Eurosceptic. Britain’s economic relationship with the continent has been a huge and vital success for the past 30 years, and must continue to be so. I reject the Eurosceptic view that the US is our natural partner. If Europe, over the next generation or two, can forge a credible defence and foreign policy identity, then it is critical for Britain to be part of it.
Yet today, we are not being asked to work over 40 years towards a common defence and foreign policy. We are invited to endorse a European constitution that aspires to these things now. It seems self-evident that the rush towards integration, towards Brussels hegemony, is moving far faster than the plausibility of European institutions is growing. (emphasis added)
This, especially the last sentence, is the crux of Hastings’ argument, and the alter-European position – that while the aims are laudable and achievable, there is not currently the necessary level of belief in the institutions to carry out these aims.
‘Plausibility’ is a useful concept here – the idea that, at some point in the future, there will be that belief present, but that it is not plausible to assign that belief and expectation now. It’s the idea that Europe is trying to run before it can walk, or to stretch the athletic metaphor (possibly to breaking point) to believe that as it can run a competent 400 or 800 metre race that it can go straight to the marathon with no additional training. It’s not that it can’t be done, but that if you want to do it properly you have to be ready to do it. As Hastings writes:
Optimists, most of them in Downing Street, suggest that if the bureaucracies are formed, the substance will follow. There are no grounds to believe this.
The problem is that the bureaucracies have outweighed the substance and that while it’s laudable to look towards future possibilities and opportunities, it’s not necessary to try and dictate the form which the future will take.
As has been mentioned in many other posts here and elsewhere over the last few months, there’s no central point of reference for Europe whether you’re looking at it from externally or internally. The institution that’s meant to be the closest to the people – the European Parliament – is regularly ignored or bypassed by the Council of Ministers and the Commission, making people see Europe as a project of governments, of elites, not one of the people.
For me, the last straw was the publication last week of Gisela Stuart’s Fabian pamphlet, about her experience as the Labour party’s representative at the European convention. “Not once,” she wrote in a seminal passage of her brave and deeply impressive piece, “in the 16 months I spent on the convention did representatives question whether deeper integration is what the people of Europe want, whether it serves their best interests or whether it provides the best basis for a sustainable structure for an expanding union.”
These are damning words. This weekend’s EU summit was frustrated by a mere tactical dispute about voting weights. Yet more and more of us feel, like Stuart, that emotional faith in the concept of Europe can no longer blind us to the rational objections to the European constitution.
The key question, of course, is whether an alter-European camp can coalesce around a new vision of Europe, a positive example of the sort of Europe they (we?) want to see rather than a ‘I’m not sure what I want, but that’s not it’ position. A new vision for Europe should be something that comes from the bottom up rather than being imposed from the top down. The problem is, of course, finding that new vision and then finding a way to implement it.