Alter-European?

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.

11 thoughts on “Alter-European?

  1. First step is surely to examine what is so terrible about a ‘two speed’ Europe – the all or nothing approach seems designed to engender crises, and experience has shown that it’s quite feasible for countries to participate in some initiatives and not in others.

  2. Too fast, or too slow? Jean Monnet wanted a Europe that was not governed by an intergovernmental committee, yet national governments have done nothing to empower the European Parliament. It’s this footdragging that means voting rights in the Council of Ministers still matter – and this is snarling the entire porject.

    Funny how the past weekend seems to have gelled this very opinion in the minds of many: My own alter-European rationalization is here. It ends with my own attempt at a preamble – I would be interested in seeing other people’s ideal preamble.

  3. By Lib Dem standards, I was quite euro-sceptic before I started working for an MEP (well, definitely *Euro* sceptic, ideologically committed to the EU). But after 18 months I am, if anything, even more doubtful.

    There are lots of big problems that cross borders that we need to work together on – the environment, defence and asylum and immigration to name but a few. The problem is, politicians are terrified of dealing with most of them out of a fear of being accused of giving up national sovereignty. Meanwhile the Commission seems determined to regulate every aspect of life regardless of whether it would be better dealt with by nation states (or even not at all).

    Perhaps we should have a five year moratorium on ANY new EU legislation. That way we could better assess what is important and what we can live without.

    James

  4. James is right about the Commission’s determination to regulate frenetically. However, your point Nick, that the Commission regularly ignores or bypasses the European Parliament is fashionable opinion but wrong. It isn’t possible for the Commission to ignore or bypass the Parliament even sometimes, never mind regularly. Everything it proposes must go through the Parliament and anything it proposes can be stopped or entirely modified by the Parliament (e.g., the take over bids directive).

  5. Famously, in successive official polls Brits have come out as the most sceptical of the Euro single currency and of the benefits of EU membership altogether. As a conjecture, I suspect we might become rather more enthusiastic if the EU Commission were to demonstrate competence at getting some grip on stopping sleaze and corruption. The European Court of Auditors has now refused to endorse the EU accounts for the last nine years in succession. How many more years will it take to sort out the administration of the Commission?

  6. Nice post Stefan. I like the preambule too but also agree with Marc Young on your site “but it’s illusionary to think the national governments would just sign away their own significance”
    But that’s quite a dilemma we face. Several of them actually.
    A core problem imo is the fact that the government leaders will resort to presenting “europe”, or “the big countries”, or “non-euroland-members” as some kind of outside enemy to gain popularity at home.
    I think I repeat myself here too, saying that also to change this, we need to get rid of direct elections and switch to indirect elections instead.

  7. “Famously, in successive official polls Brits have come out as the most sceptical of the Euro single currency and of the benefits of EU membership altogether. As a conjecture, I suspect we might become rather more enthusiastic if the EU Commission were to demonstrate competence at getting some grip on stopping sleaze and corruption.”

    I don’t believe that I understand the link between a currency and government “sleaze and Corruption”.

    If there truly was one, wouldn’t that be an argument for dumping the Pound or any currency and going back to barter ?

    And isn’t this the same blog that recently highlighted a Brit calling for European Politics to be more like British Politics…what was that Article, oh yes, “A fist in the face” ?

  8. Nick, this is a little late, but thanks for another fine post. A lot of food for thought here, and thanks very much to the pointer to Hasting’s excellent article. I look forward to reading what you have to say about European cultural and national identities. In the meantime, your post (and Maria’s over at Crooked Timber) inspired some thoughts of my own; you can check them out here: http://philosophenweg.blogspot.com/2003_12_01_philosophenweg_archive.html#107186324509411372.

  9. Patrick,

    “I don’t believe that I understand the link between a currency and government ‘sleaze and Corruption’.”

    My earlier post did not, in fact, suggest there was any direct link but the dispassionate, inquisitive observer of EU affairs might well consider it prudent to ask whether there is a connecting thread between the failing economic performance of the Eurozone, the unilateral disregard of the Euzozone’s Stability and Growth Pact by France and Germany, the botched attempt to launch a Constitution for the EU, the evidence that emerged in the summer of more sleaze and corruption in the EU Commission and the recent refusal of the European Court of Auditors to endorse EU accounts for the ninth year in succession.

    However, I must confess that I have a personal difficulty in believing these are altogether unrelated to the competence of the EU Commission and the integrity and sustainability of the EU as presently motivated and administered. But then, like so many of my compatriots, I can probably be dismissed out of hand as just one of those Eurosceptics who can be ignored by true believers in the Holy Grail of European integration. Ours is not to reason why?

  10. The constitution, and the process by which it was drawn up, seem very remote from the European peoples. Not surprising then, that there is no popular enthusiasm for it. It’s probably best to tear up the constitution and try again, with the principle of doing what pleases most people and trying to avoid displeasing everyone. This means we have to have a multi-speed variable-geometry Europe, because it’s going to be impossible to get asll 25 countries to agree to the pace of integration.

    The democratic deficit also needs to be fixed: have an elected president of the EU (who would also be president of the Commission, no need for two separate jobs — perhaps the deputy president could also be Europe’s foregn minister). Give the European Parliament more power, in particular equal power over the budget with the Council.

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