Simon Usherwood / Jul 2016
Amongst my (apparently extensive) list of sadnesses in life is that my alma mater has still yet seen fit to ask me back to teach on the subject of euroscepticism. The last time I talked to someone about this the line (well before the UK’s referendum) was something on the lines of “if we teach about it, then we risk given it more credibility.”
I’d say I wasn’t bitter, but you might doubt me. However, I’d hope you wouldn’t doubt that the cordon sanitaire approach to euroscepticism hasn’t worked and isn’t going to work. My former college’s view has long been the dominant one in the Brussels bubble (and beyond) and it’s an ultimately counter-productive approach.
There is a strong temptation to see June’s vote for the UK to leave the EU as a one-off, a fluke, the production of such unique circumstances as to warrant nothing more than regret at the UK’s passing and the passing thought that now we have cut off the head of euroscepticism, all those others who rail against European integration will either fall into line or fall out of relevance.
Up to a point, there’s something in this. Nowhere else in the Union has there been such a strong framing of euroscepticism as being about withdrawing from the EU: elsewhere, it’s very much more about reform and change from within, even if some of the plans floated look to be incompatible with the system as currently constructed.
Nowhere else in Europe has there been the same corrosive drip-drip of sceptical print media, continually calling into question the actions and intentions of “Brussels” and “eurocrats”. And, most importantly, nowhere else in Europe have successive governments failed to make any meaningful case for the benefits of membership for such a long time.
So, yes, the UK is special, is unique. But that’s completely not the point.
Across the Union, in any member state you care to mention, the same things are happening. Maybe not to the same degree, maybe not with the same virulence, but they are happening.
Certainly, those critics of the EU took something from the UK: ideas for messages, strategies for getting attention, policies for drawing in ever more people. Nigel Farage has been a role model for many activists, as a cursory glance at the comments under his YouTube videos will attest.
But while the British might have provided some inspiration and some fuel, it has still required some ignition and stoking in each of those countries. To take the most glaring example, Marine Le Pen might loath Farage, but she is happy to take his actions and rhetoric to use as her own.
And so the blossoming of euroscepticism across the continent continues, with or without the British. Indeed, you could well argue that the success of British Eurosceptics – regardless of whether they were actually responsible for the Leave vote – have now opened up a path that never existed before, a path leaving out of a moribund Union, to a bright future of free cooperation.
What bright future, you say? Isn’t the British economy currently suffering from this result? Hasn’t the entire British political system been turned on its head? Aren’t the Brexiteers now regretting their choices, their leaders running from the field in their moment of glory? Haven’t we seen sharp upticks in support for European integration in other member states?
Yes, we have. But again that is to miss the point.
It was always clear that Leave would have short-term costs: indeed, it was what much of the Remain campaign was built on. But one day, there will be a restabilisation, a recovery of British politics and the economy. It might have something to do with leaving the EU, it probably won’t, but it will be seized upon by Eurosceptics everywhere as a vindication of their actions.
That moment is a way off, but it will come, and on present actions, the Union is going to pay a very heavy price for it.
In essence, we’re seeing a reproduction of the strategy I outlined at the start: ignoring and marginalising those who disagree. The UK will be made something of an example – certainly rhetorically, possibly materially – in the Article 50 process: it’s one of the main reasons the UK is going to take its time about notification. Voters everywhere will be reminded of the perils of straying from the path and politicians will focus their attentions on the more pressing issues of Eurozone reform, management of refugees and open borders and a periphery to the East and South that looks less and less friendly.
That is understandable, but in the longer-term it will leave the EU wide open to challenge.
The paradox here is that the EU is a giant consensus-building machine, but struggles with those that fall outside that consensus. It treats them as implacable foes, treating anything they say as unacceptable.
Yes, there are people out there who refuse to accept any of the rules of the system of democracy or the fundamental rights that underpin it. Some of those people are Eurosceptics, but not all. Likewise, and more importantly, most Eurosceptics aren’t those people. Do you really think that 52% of those who voted in the British referendum really have no respect for democracy or human rights?
All too often, we lose sight of the simple fact that Eurosceptics are citizens.
Their disquiet, their disillusionment, their anger comes from many places. Some of those places are linked to the EU, some are not. But if you don’t talk with those people, then you won’t know for sure and you certainly won’t be able to find a way forward.
As I’ve observed before on these pages, Eurosceptics might not have the answers, but they ask the questions that we all need to address. Pushing them away, punishing them, cannot be a strategy. The loss of the UK will be a blow to the EU, but one that it can manage. What it cannot afford is for anywhere else to head down the same path as the British.
And as it stands, I’m more likely to get that teaching gig than the Union is to try talking to those it needs to work for its survival.