A triumph for euroscepticism

Europe's World

Picture of Simon Usherwood
Simon Usherwood

One of the biggest paradoxes of euroscepticism is that, for all the debate about it across the continent, there is very little direct evidence that it has an impact. The ‘no’ votes in referendums on treaties since Maastricht, and the successes of eurosceptic parties in European and national elections, are much more about national political priorities and a general disaffection with politics as it is to do with the process of European integration. This month’s European Council seems to have offered an interesting counterpoint to this.

Throughout the British Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation, David Cameron has managed to divert a Union that has pressing problems to deal with – migration, eurozone governance, threats from Russia – to talk instead about the terms of British membership. That few other leaders were happy about this was all too clear, but they still humoured him with two days of tough negotiation. This was clearly and explicitly an event driven by, and seeking to address, eurosceptic pressures that Cameron has had to deal with back home. To be clear, this is not just a British phenomenon, it is a European one. As Cameron and others noted in the run-up to the Brussels meeting, this is something that matters to all member states, each of whom faces their own sceptical publics and questions about the value of membership. It is no accident, then, that although the package agreed is entitled “A new settlement for the UK within the EU”, it does not contain a single provision that cannot be accessed by other states.

Euroscepticism invites us to forget that the EU has spent its entire existence accommodating a broad spectrum of political, economic and social views

And yet, for all that, the deal was not one of great substance. The entire package is conditional on the UK voting to stay in the EU in June, and even then the main points of substance are simply commitments to introduce pieces of legislation, which will face serious challenge from the European Parliament, other member states and even legal challenges in the European Court of Justice. Moreover, the package is clearly placed within the framework of the treaties, meaning that it does not represent a fundamental change in membership terms for the UK or anyone else. In short, the European Union may know that it has a problem getting popular support, but it is largely unwilling or unable to make large-scale adjustments to its functioning.

Last week’s European Council meeting showed us again that the EU is a bargained system balancing a wide range of views and interests. As the Constitutional Convention of the 2000s highlighted, even if you start from a blank sheet, you still end up with something that tries to marry intergovernmental interests with supranational governance, and democratic representation with technocratic models. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t make anyone feel very happy, but it’s what is possible. And broadly speaking, it works. Euroscepticism invites us to forget that the EU has spent its entire existence accommodating a broad spectrum of political, economic and social views. Sadly, the EU’s success in bringing most people into the process has come at the expense of finding a way of handling the few who were left feeling excluded. For a long time, that didn’t really have any great consequence, but over time the few have become much more numerous.

The British settlement is misnamed, for it is very unlikely to settle anything, either for the UK or the EU. Nothing short of a large majority either way will do that. Instead, euroscepticism will continue to be something that the European Union finds itself having to deal with until it works out how to open itself to the full range of views that exist. If it can do that, then eurosceptics and europhiles can both claim victory.

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