Interesting interests

Simon Usherwood / Oct 2015

Angela Merkel, David Cameron and François Hollande. Photo: European Union

One of the most annoying phrases that crops up when talking about European integration is ‘the national interest.’ It gets wheeled out at European Councils, intergovernmental conferences, press conferences, even the floor of the European Parliament. It falls from the lips of national politicians and of those who seek to strengthen it, or to protect it from the rapacious grasp of others.

The reason I dislike it should be obvious: there is no such thing. A moment’s reflection will suffice to stress the basic mechanism, namely of someone claiming to speak for a much larger group. ‘What’s good for my country’ is usually nothing more than code for ‘what I think my country should be doing.’ Since even the most self-assured and egocentric politician knows that the latter formulation is not a good way to win support, the nation and its needs and interests are invoked left, right and centre.

This is all just good politics and it would be silly to ask for it to stop. But there’s a sting in the tail.

Because we always seem to talk in terms of ‘the national interest’ (or ‘Europe’s interest’ for that matter) we end up seeing the world in those terms. This country wants this thing, that country must protect that thing. And behind it the vague sense that each country must want different things, because each country is different, right? Even worse, because we identify our ‘national interest’ we assume that everyone else is out to do us down.

Of course, in an intergovernmental system, that’s workable up to a point, because the kinds of things that get identified as being ‘in the national interest’ are often either very nebulous (‘fairness’ to use that classic British example) or very specific (The maintenance of the City of London’s strong position in financial markets, to use an equally classic British example). Between the two categories there’s more than enough space to stick a pile of commonalities.

But once again, this brings us back to the original problem: there isn’t a ‘national interest.’

Think about your country’s domestic politics for a minute. There, I’m guessing, ‘the national interest’ is rarely invoked in political debate, outside of foreign policy. Instead there are competing programmes of policies and personalities, from which you select via elections and referendums, and oy understand that whoever is in power has it only in a limited way, bounded by time and by constitutional constraint. Your government might represent your country, but it is itself a composite of different views and interests, which are more or less visible to you. Even if the previous administration talked about the same specific ‘national interest’ as they current one, they almost certainly understood it differently and operationalised it differently.

In short, there are lots of different interests and they advance by finding coalitions of support.

In the context of the EU, we might more usefully understand matters if we adopted a similar view. Granted there are differences, but nothing that’s insurmountable.

The big difference is the highly inflected nature of the decision-making system, which doesn’t produce the equivalent of a government periodically subject to renewal through elections. Instead, there is a constant cycling of actors – particularly of national government representatives – with no one body holding the capacity to act as cohesively and coherently as a national government.

Instead, we see the battle of interests, of different ideas about how to tackle different problems and make things work better. As coalitions form, across individuals and institutions, so actual policy-making progresses.

The point here is that interests are not national and so exist in many different places simultaneously. Particularly in the European system, where no one country can impose itself on others, interests necessarily have a grounding outside of the state or nation to have any chance of success.

If we could recognise this, then we might be able to get over the zero-sum view of the Union that I outlined above and see instead that European integration isn’t ‘German’ or ‘French’, but rather the product of myriad contributions from many different places.

To put it differently - and to co-opt the language of the ‘national interest’ - it’s not only ‘our’ country that can hold ‘our national interest’, or at least some of it. In practice, in European-level negotiations, national politicians recognise the need to find partners to advance particular points. The old-school archetype was the Franco-German pair, grounded in a very particular set of contingencies and now not really what it was.

Ironically, the best example of the more modern and adaptable partner-maker has been the UK, building subject-specific relations with a wide range of counterparts: Northern member states for social policy, the Germans for internal market regulation, central Europe for enlargement, and so on. It’s one of the reasons why the Union looks a lot more ‘British’ than is often realised (especially in the UK).

I say ironically, because the UK is now engaged in a period of perplexity about its relationship with the EU. In part, that’s because there isn’t that sense of having ‘won’ or ‘secured the national interest.’ As Jon Worth has rightly noted, for the current renegotiation to be successful in maintaining British involvement, there will have to be both some substantive concessions and the feeling that substantive concessions have been won.

The British example matters, because it is likely to be just the first of many more such cases across the Union, especially if we keep on mis-characterising the functioning of the system as being about ‘national interests.’


Simon Usherwood

Simon Usherwood

October 2015

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