Tuesday, 2 July 2019

We're just not into EU


Over the course of the last four years this blog has attempted to explore every aspect of Brexit. I can say with reasonable confidence that there are very few others who've explored the issues with quite the same intensity. In this time I have gravitated toward trade and regulation but seldom have I explored the internal politics of the EU entity. I should, but I don't.

There's a good reason for this. It's super boring. The high politics of the EU is only followed by think tank wonks, politics students, pretentious tossers and bored Brussels correspondents who pulled the shortest straw. Nobody else understands it or even gives a toss - and that's why it will never be a legitimate power.

Today of all days leavers are making the classic error of complaining about "unelected officials", which is neither here nor there since the EU would still fail to be a democracy even if they were elected. Insofar as there is any drama to the politics of the EU, the appointment of functionaries does not actually alter the direction of the EU. There's not much in it whoever is appointed. The destination is always the same. Of course there are subtleties in approach but you'd have to be a serious nerd to detect them. I certainly have no instinct for it.

For me this stuff is hard to get excited about. I don't know who these people are, where they come from, what they represent or what they get up to. Every now and then one of their number acquires a certain notoriety by way of their corruption, but in the EU being bent is no barrier to any of the top jobs. That much has been true for as long as I can remember.

This is the very essence of the EU's fundamental lack of legitimacy. We do not know this entity as we know our own government. For a governing entity to have any kind of democratic legitimacy it must have a meaningful connection to the demos. It must be embedded in the culture.

You don't have to be a constitutional expert to get British politics. We are raised on it. Even before I was able to vote I'd been exposed to The New Statesman, Spitting Image, Yes Minister and later, The thick of it, and come election time we get to know our politicians - their values, their background and their shortcomings. Further to this we have a media that (notionally) holds our politics to account. 

We can't say the same of the EU. As a rule scrutiny of the EU is a somewhat niche pursuit. If there is a corruption scandal, generally news of it reaches me via EUobserver or Euractiv, and EU trade news comes to me via bilaterals.org. The most active civil society groups are nearly always from mainland Europe and anything said by Brussels tends not to register in the British press - as has been abundantly evident through the Article 50 process.

As it stands we have a more in depth understanding of US politics than anything happening on the continent. Political union is more feasible with the USA. Not that we should want such a thing. But when we look to the EU we see an alien political culture run by people we can't identify where every action has an ulterior motive in the pursuit of "ever closer union". 

Though remainers may lament the lack of British media engagement, it's just not the sort of thing you can manufacture. British media isn't remotely interested because media follows power and so far as they are concerned, Westminster, with all its high drama and intrigue, is the only politics worth speaking of. There just isn't a way to make the EU relevant to people. For a brief moment in time the EU was interesting insofar as its ill conceived vanity currency was about to collapse the entire European financial system, but that's only really because humans have a perverse need to see big things crash and burn.

Very occasionally an EU trade deal will make it into the news but were it not for Brexit EU trade deals pass under the radar with no real comment from our media and no parliamentary scrutiny. If memory serves, TTIP was a blip on the radar back in 2013 along with hysteria about ISDS but most people couldn't tell you what ISDS or TTIP was or why it was important. Back then it hardly registered even with me.

On every major issue there is a disconnect between the public and the supreme government of Europe. It steamrollers on with no genuine consent, at best considered an economic necessity and at worst a lifesucking parasite with a democracy phobia. It's taken Brexit for most of the public to develop a serious opinion on the EU. Prior to that we couldn't even get 40 per cent turnout at euro elections and the vast majority of people even now could not name a single grouping in the European Parliament or tell you what they stand for.

The group system of itself is an attempt to manufacture an organic component to European politics but it doesn't work. Certainly not from the British perspective. We only see euro elections in terms of domestic politics along domestic party lines and the results are largely seen as an opinion poll on the incumbent governing party.

The bottom line is that the British public does not have an organic or meaningful relationship with the EU government. The EU perhaps means more to the Germans and French as an act of national reconciliation, but we Brits just aren't that into the EU and that's never really going to change. Much of the support for remaining in the EU has less to do with what the EU is as a fear of what will happen in the process of leaving.

Without that meaningful relationship and without that media focus, and with EU political structures being as opaque as they are (who among you really knows what a commissioner or high representative does?) there can never be any clear line of accountability and none of the dialogue that is necessary for a functioning democracy. 

Worse for the EU is that it's always going to be fighting a losing battle. Its attempts at connecting with people are clumsy and tone deaf, and the media will never report on it accurately or honestly if they bother to report on it at all. And being that the UK was dragged into the EU treaty construct without a referendum the EU will never overcome the sense of resentment.

For as long as the UK is in the EU it will burble on in the background as it always has, existing as noise, struggling for relevance, and forever finding the UK a nuisance. That though, was never sustainable. As Roy Jenkins put it in 1999, "There are only two coherent British attitudes to Europe. One is to participate fully and to endeavour to exercise as much influence and gain as much benefit as possible from the inside. The other is to recognise that Britain’s history, national psychology and political culture may be such that we can never be other than a foot-dragging and constantly complaining member; and that it would be better, and certainly would produce less friction, to accept this and to move towards an orderly, and if possible, reasonably amicable withdrawal".

It turns out that a "reasonably amicable" withdrawal isn't actually possible. Part of the problem is that British politics has never been able to fully reconcile the UK's purpose as an EU member. Most of its advocates still can't even be honest about what the EU is, persisting in calling it a "trade bloc". It's telling that most of the remainer MPs still don't know the difference between the customs union and a single market. For them, the EU is just a stage prop that flatters their self image as progressive internationalists. Values that are wildly out of kilter with the nation as a whole.

Though the EU has always been a peripheral issue, it has still had the potency to bring down prime ministers, and though it seldom pipped into top ten list of immediate concerns, it has caused a deep schism in British politics as the issue reached an impasse. Rather than resolving the issue we simply buried it for a decade or more, hoping it would go away. But it didn't. It continued to fester.

The result of that moral cowardice is a hopelessly divided country split right down the middle, estranged not only from Brussels, but also London with all trust in government utterly shattered. The issue is fractal. As much as the EU is a government imposed upon us, an aloof Westminster establishment, now an extension of the Brussels mentality, imposes on the rest of the country. It is not simply a question of leaving the EU. It's about carving out this alien inorganic culture of politics that neither listens nor responds.

As dire as the Tory leadership contest may be, it is at least a politics with meaning to us and with consequences we can understand. That is why the nation state is still the only vehicle through which meaningful democratic politics can be conducted. Remove that organic element and all we are left with is a faceless foreign entity that neither captures our imagination or evokes a sense of loyalty or patriotism. Without that you soon have an ungovernable country that no longer knows itself. We can only hope that ship has not already sailed.

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