Words are essential tools for understanding the world. But they become devalued when there is little common understanding about what they actually mean. The noun ‘Eurosceptic’ was once a useful label for a type of British discomfort with Europe’s formal goals of economic and political union and the terms of membership. But it is now casually applied to people and parties across Europe whose views on the obligations of membership and of integration are often fundamentally different. These days the label ‘Eurosceptic’ confuses rather than clarifies political analysis and discussion.
This is the only possible conclusion in the light of the recent Dutch elections. Long before ballots were cast, most comment viewed Dutch attitudes to possible solutions to the sovereign-debt crisis and to further political integration as resolutely negative. Polls pointed to declining support for membership of the Union, strong opposition to bailing out ‘wastrel’ southern European economies, and public concern that the Union was steamrollering national policies and undermining national identity.
Click Here: pinko shop cheap
The election result, however, has been seen as a victory for Europe over a brand of populist and nationalist Euroscepticism. Support was halved for Geert Wilders’ party after it had campaigned for withdrawal from the EU, while the Socialists, who had opposed all bail-outs for Greece and others, made none of the gains that had once seemed possible. Instead, the Liberals and the Labour Party emerged as the dominant forces likely to provide the next coalition government.
This outcome has been widely trumpeted as a victory for pro-Europeans. But can it really be so when the largest party in the next parliament, the Liberals, has led the Dutch government for the past two years from an allegedly Eurosceptic position? Mark Rutte’s government has, for example, been more German than the Germans in insisting on applying tough conditions to supplying bail-out funds. Labour, whose strong showing was a genuine surprise, has in opposition been only a little more supportive to the Union’s approach to resolving the debt crisis. In government, its line is unlikely to be very different from the ‘tough love’ approach of Rutte and his Liberals.
So will the Netherlands be led by a Eurosceptic or a pro-European government? While its policies are unlikely to be different from the previous coalition, led by Rutte and labelled Eurosceptic, are we now to declare a political transformation in the Netherlands that places it firmly in the pro-Europe camp? In reality, the new government will be reluctant to commit national funds to bail-outs, while being sympathetic to the pragmatic case for political union. Our existing political lexicon has no words for such subtleties.
It is quite clear that a new vocabulary is needed to describe the political currents eddying around us. Those currents pull in opposite directions – towards political fragmentation and towards greater unity. In his state of the Union speech to the European Parliament, José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, called for new thinking on the way forward that will overcome forces hostile to political union. He identified the opposition as “nationalists” and “populists” – words that certainly apply to European rejectionists such as Wilders, France’s Marie Le Pen or Timo Soini and his True Finns party. But they do not describe supporters of the status quo shaped by the Lisbon treaty who also have serious reservations about how national democracies could be undermined by more transfers of powers to the Union. And what about those significant forces on the left that are hostile to the Union not because they oppose political integration but because they detest the liberal market principles upon which it is based?
Barroso’s speech wants us to believe that contrasting views of the Europe we need can be reconciled by common interests requiring common efforts and shared sovereignties to deal with the consequences of globalisation. He points us in the direction of a distant political union that he calls a federation of nation states anchored in strong democratic institutions – ideas espoused long ago by the blessed Jacques Delors. This earned a furious rejoinder from the Schuman Project, whose author, David Price, said that Schuman argued that a federation would need to set aside the Commission and the Community method because it cannot operate on supranational principles. Schuman placed the supra-nationalism that he advocated as midway between the “international individualism of states” jealously protecting their sovereignty, and “federalism of states” that submit themselves to a super-state with its own territorial sovereignty.
Sadly, Schuman’s vision of supra-nationalism is severely undermined these days by widespread distrust of the Commission as an interfering, unelected bureaucracy.
The people will have to validate the new treaty on the next stage of political union whatever it is. By no means all of the present 27 members will want, or be able, to join the new Union. How many do so may well depend on whether an embryonic European polis is in prospect, able to accept the fundamental principle that national debts can be the mutual responsibility of all members. As the debate approaches, ‘pro-European’ does not begin to describe such a political community. What could?
John Wyles is an independent consultant based in Brussels.