Can Europe Make It?

It's time to get the “national interest” out of the UK's European debate

As long as the British debate about the EU is framed only in terms of the "national interest", a meaningful and nuanced discussion will be impossible. Stop using the term, “national interest”.

Jon Worth
20 November 2013
Flickr/Olivier Bacquet. Some rights reserved.

Flickr/Olivier Bacquet. Some rights reserved.

“Our national interest lies in staying in the European Union” says Ed Miliband. Nick Clegg does the same, stating "Liberal Democrats, it falls for us to stand up for the national interest, we will be the party of 'In'." Even Cameron states “Leaving the EU is not in our national interest”.

But have any of these politicians, and indeed the dozens of others using such terminology, stopped to reflect on what the term actually means? From pro-EU Tories such as Kenneth Clarke, through Liberal Democrats like Danny Alexander, to Labour politicians such as Douglas Alexander and Emma Reynolds, they all use similar words. 

When it comes to the UK's relations with the European Union then, politicians of all colours are applying what George Lakoff (in The Political Mind) described as the Nation is a Person metaphor. The Nation, as an actor in international politics, has its “self interest”, and just as a person aims to be strong, healthy and influential, so too should a Nation within the European Union. The Nation is acting in its interests to maximise its economic and political strength. This implies that there is a natural state of competition between the Member States of the European Union, and that each shall seek to achieve influence – over and above others if necessary. To give an example, this very vocabulary is heavily used by the British Influence pressure group.

But is thinking like this about the UK's relations with the European Union either politically sensible, or in communication terms even desirable?

The term “national interest” triggers thinking in a person's mind about what the nation is. There are two problems with this. First, politicians using the term so freely disguise the complexity in defining what a UK national interest is, if indeed it even exists. That the Scottish National Party (SNP) is probably the most pro-EU mainstream political party in the UK underlines this complexity; the definition of national interest varies. Second, in England at least, the term feels rooted in history, and history means wars and emerging victorious. When it comes to the EU, the national interest entails standing up for what is good about the UK against a perceived threat from others. 

This then is a strange starting point to try to persuade people that the European Union is a good thing, because membership of the European Union requires the very opposite sort of values. It is about collaboration and compromise, and seeking common solutions between countries, and trusting and respecting others and learning from them. Nurturing values. This approach runs deep in the Brussels political culture – EU politics is collaborative and compromise-based, rather than Westminster style where everyone jousts and the strongest prevails. A country that goes to Brussels and tries to throw its weight about will not succeed because even the largest countries cannot prevail alone.

The European Union is unique among international organisations in that it has a European Parliament that people elect every five years, and most of the time this parliament votes along party-political and not along national lines. Nothing similar is to be found in the UN, NATO or the OSCE. Seeing the European Union in terms of national interest struggles to find a place for the European Parliament – it is about international democracy and ideological interests, the very antithesis of the national interest way of looking at the European Union. Fed this never-ending diet of national thinking, it is perhaps unsurprising that the British have never been keen voters in European Parliament elections.

“National interest” also implies that there is only one way for the British to be pro-EU, that the British have worked out one, national, holistic position on the European Union, and are unified in demanding it. This results in contortions, e.g. that a cut to the EU's budget is good because the UK demanded it. It ought to be possible to be British, and pro-EU, and to want a higher EU budget (or, for that matter, completely different spending, or an even deeper cut), but in the current way the EU is debated this is close to impossible.

The current state of the debate plays into the hands of conservatives (note small c) and not into the hands of progressives. A harsh, winner-takes-it-all, your-neighbour-needs-to-know-the-rules view of the European Union currently dominates in the UK, even drawing Labour's new shadow Europe Minister to focus on limiting freedom of movement within the EU in his first major article since his appointment.

While the Conservatives may be beset by the fight over whether to ultimately leave the European Union or not, the momentum in the debate is only towards their side of the political spectrum – a harsher world in which people in the UK should be happy to be less well protected than their counterparts on the other side of the English Channel. Labour and the Liberal Democrats may wring their hands at this, but they are inexorably pulled in the same direction.

So what needs to be done? 

Very simply: stop using the term “national interest”. Try also to avoid terms relating to influence, to strength, to victories. Think instead about ideology and how that relates to everyday needs of people, and see the European Union as an extension of national politics rather than an arena of international politics. Try to answer these questions: what does a liberal need from the EU? A conservative? A social democrat? An environmentalist or a business owner? An unemployed person or a retired person? Because all these groups will need different things from the European Union, whether they live in the UK or elsewhere. And a retired person in the UK may well need the same things as a retired person in Italy, and a UK businesswoman the same things as someone in the same business in Poland. With the clock ticking down to a possible referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union, such a change in the way the European Union is talked about cannot come a moment too soon.


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