On the politics of the EU, ‘Leave’ has the right arguments – but come to the wrong conclusion

By Ask Foldspang Neve

Hands up if you voted Labour in the last EP elections to get Martin Schultz as your Spitzenkandidat for the Presidency of the European Commission. No takers? What about those who voted Tory to get Jean-Claude Juncker? Fewer still? OK. Everybody’s at fault: In the 2014 EP elections, the major candidates all steered clear of Britain, and Britain’s pro-EU parties all steered clear of them. Everybody informally agreed that leaving the skeptical islanders alone would probably be the least risky path to follow.

The problem is that, as many Euroskeptics have said for a while, the pro-European has chosen tacit dishonesty over and over again. This is by no means an isolated British phenomenon; it has long been common in the more skeptically inclined Northern European countries. Pro-Europeans in each country have spoken to their respective populations about the European project in terms that were likely to be received positively without the need for convincing. In Northern Europe, that has primarily meant not talking about Europe at all. And that’s the pro-Europeans’ biggest mistake.

Pro-Europeans have utterly failed at taking the criticisms of the EU seriously. The EU is still vastly undemocratic, meaning that national citizens feel that they have hardly any say over who gets to rule in Brussels or how their vote will influence which policies are discussed and agreed upon. That the leaders of the major voting blocs in the EP all agreed on the Spitzenkandidaten system almost only made matters worse: since it was so woefully short of the real democratic reform – nay, revolution – that was needed, they came to be seen not as political alternatives, but instead reaffirmed the suspicion among skeptics that there really is such a thing as a coherent, scheming European elite (instead of simply leaders and politicians from a number of EU countries, who are no more related to each other than to their British peers).

Juncker, Schulz and Farage

European halfway house: Is anybody really enjoying themself? (Source: The Telegraph / AFP PHOTO / FREDERICK FLORIN /Getty Images)

The problem is then that we have found ourselves in a compromise that is increasingly unacceptable to secessionists and federalists alike. The issue obviously is not compromising itself: most stable political projects are, in some way, compromises. The great empires certainly were; and non-compromising political movements tend to see continuous splintering, the common fate of religious and political fundamentalists alike.

There needs to be common polity space, however, for a compromise. If the ground in between two positions seems less attractive to both parties than continued fighting, peace is not in sight. And that might be exactly what has happened to the European Union. We have ended up with a political grotesque that satisfies nobody. The free-market policies, such as the rules of the Maastricht Treaty and the Growth and Stability Pact, have been given constitutional status – instead of simply being up for political discussion. That free-market basis is what has been the cause for traditional leftwing opposition to the EU all over Europe, and is likely to have been the cause for the recent drop in enthusiasm for further integration in the South, in particular in Spain and Greece. Yet those very same policies were also used as ‘safeguards’ to placate the rightwing skeptics of the project in the North. For those who wanted the EU to be more like the EEC and less of Union, having established free-market policies (for the North) and agricultural subsidies (for the South) that are outside of the political discussion was exactly what they aimed for. Yet Northern (centrist and rightwing) skeptics were happy to ignore these equally valid criticisms of the compromises made by people on the left.

Not allowing for basic matters of policy, however, might diminish the legitimacy of any polity. Not even having mechanisms for effectively representing different points of view only exacerbates the problem. The solution is to realize that the two visions of Europe – a free-trade zone and a political union – are not compatible and lead in unmistakably different directions. A true political union should not favor one set of policies over another in its constitution. It needs a discussion of states’ rights, and of how it can become as liberally democratic as possible. A free-trade zone probably needs none of that. Of course, it also offers none of the real political advantages of union: the ability to shield the increasingly marginalized European countries and their values in a world that will otherwise be dominated by giants such as China, India and the United States. That latter discussion is of course one that Leave, on its part, find inconvenient and seeks to avoid, instead preferring to pretend that Britain could stand up to countries 20 times its size on its own.

It is time for the pro-Europeans to reveal their true colors: the aim is not to create “trade-zone plus”. It is to redraw the map and create a real polity, since that is what European countries must to avoid potentially catastrophic strategic marginalization. If they don’t even know what they are aiming for – as Cameron might not – they should take the advice of some, either skeptics or federalists, who do. And most importantly, pro-Europeans should stop defending the status quo, which is arguably the worst of both worlds: enough to disenfranchize its citizens yet far too little to implement effective polities, as the European Triple Crisis – the economic crisis, the refugee crisis, and the Russian security dilemma – has shown.