Hans Kundnani / Nov 2021
In the last few years, I have written a number of articles criticising the way the European Union has evolved during the last decade and the way its supporters think. In doing so, I have often used the term “pro-European” as a shorthand for supporters of European integration, or the European project, or the EU in its current form. I didn’t expect this term to be the focus of debate. But some “pro-Europeans” have vehemently objected to my use of it, which they see as unhelpful or even somehow offensive.
I am puzzled by these objections by “pro-Europeans” to the use of the term “pro-European” – above all because it was they who invented the term as a way of describing themselves. In particular, they did so to clearly distinguish themselves from Eurosceptics and reframe politics along these lines. Not only do “pro-Europeans” not only use the term “pro-European”, they also seem perfectly happy to use the terms “Eurosceptic” or “anti-European”, which make little sense without their antonym, “pro-European”.
It is true that there is something imprecise about the term “pro-European”. In particular, it equates the continent of Europe with the EU itself. This is why I always put the term in quotes (though copy editors sometimes remove them). “Pro-EU” would probably be a more precise term. But for better or worse, “pro-European” is the term that is commonly used, just as “Eurosceptic” is the term that is commonly used for opponents of the real existing EU – even if they just want a “different Europe”, as many left-wing Eurosceptics do.
One objection to the use of the term “pro-European” is that it no longer has explanatory power because of the way that Europe has changed and made the term meaningless. For example, Mark Leonard suggests that, because of the way that, since Brexit, even parties such as the Rassemblement National in France have abandoned their earlier aspirations to leave the EU or even the euro, they too are now “pro-European”. In other words, there are basically no Eurosceptics in the EU anymore.
This seems to me to be a little disingenuous – Le Pen is still clearly a Eurosceptic according to the usual definition of the term and is generally described as such, including by most “pro-Europeans”. Leonard and other “pro-Europeans” also often point out that as parties like Law and Justice in Poland try to disrupt the EU from within, it may be even more threatening to the EU than a simple exit. In short, even if Eurosceptics have changed their strategy, the fault line between them and “pro-Europeans” remains real.
A more serious objection to the term “pro-European” is that it obscures or overlooks the diversity among “pro-Europeans” (an objection that would equally apply to the term “pro-EU”). Clearly, there are differences between “pro-Europeans”. But it is not clear that these differences are greater than the differences between other groups like Atlanticists or populists – and the “pro-Europeans” who have criticised me are generally quite happy to use these terms. Moreover, Eurosceptics are, if anything, even more diverse than “pro-Europeans” – they tend to be on the far right and far left, which have less in common with each other than the centre right and the centre left – and yet that does not seem to stop “pro-Europeans” from using that term.
A related objection is that the “pro-European”/Eurosceptic opposition is too binary. This is the most interesting point made by critics of the term “pro-European”. I have been critical of binary thinking too. But it is not people like me who use the term “pro-European” who created this binary logic. Rather it is a feature of the EU itself and the way “pro-Europeans” themselves think. In particular, as Peter Mair showed, the structure of the EU turns criticism of particular policies into fundamental criticism of the EU as a polity – in other words, it turns left/right debates into a debate between “pro-Europeans” and Eurosceptics.
Part of the reason I use the term “pro-European” is precisely because of the tendency among “pro-Europeans” to stick together. They tend to think that political differences – in particular, between left and right – matter less than whether you are “pro-European” or Eurosceptic. In other words, it would be great if “pro-Europeans” were more willing to differentiate themselves from each other and to criticise each other more than they do. In particular, I would love to see a debate on the EU that is organised more along left/right lines. But it is “pro-Europeans” who resist this.
In particular, they tend to close ranks against the Eurosceptics, particularly as they have become more popular during the last decade or so since the beginning of the euro crisis. The dynamics in the European Parliament are a good illustration of this – debates are generally either along geographic/regional lines or between “pro-Europeans” and Eurosceptics. Similarly, in the French presidential election in 2017, Emmanuel Macron said he was “ni de droite ni de gauche” and framed the election as a choice between “pro-Europeanism” (him) and Euroscepticism (Le Pen).
In the end, however, this is not really about the term “pro-European” itself. After all, it is not as if “pro-Europeans” have another term that they prefer. Rather, objecting to the use of the term “pro-European” is part of an attempt to police debates about the EU. The reason “pro-Europeans” don’t want people like me to talk or write about “pro-Europeans” is because they do not want their collective assumptions to be interrogated by outsiders.
Instead, they want to have a conversation among insiders in which they can discuss detailed questions that they might disagree on – for example around the exact extent and kind of further integration that is needed (as opposed to whether perhaps some steps in integration should be reversed), or about the collective approach that the EU should take to the rest of the world. In their view, anything else that questions the beliefs they collectively share, despite their differences, is not legitimate or “serious” or “constructive”.