The EU Parliament in Strasbourg. Flickr/European Parliament. Some rights reserved.
How to counter UKIP’s challenge? The Conservatives, the Lib Dems and Labour promise to reform the EU. As David Cameron put it: "When it comes to standing up for Britain in Europe, is there anyone you would trust less than a group of UKIP MEPs?... If you want real change in Europe that works for you, for your family, for your business, then the Conservative Party is the only party which can deliver for you."
However, changing the EU is easier said than done, which explains why Nigel Farage looks so confident. In the enlarged and multi-layered Union, bold reforms are contentious while timid ones are useless. A decade ago the European Constitution was supposed to bring about a fundamental reform of the EU and we all know how that ended. The Fiscal Compact represents the only meaningful reform of the past decade, but it is widely regarded as a symbol of imposition and manipulation. It was orchestrated by French President Sarkozy and the German Chancellor Merkel, with little consultation with or regard for other EU members. One also wonders whether the fiscal compact represents a change for the better, as it deprives debtor countries of any economic and democratic governance.
Today the EU is much more diversified and divided than before the Euro crisis which makes any grand compromise highly improbable. Creditor states do not want be told by debtor states what to do with their money. Those within the Eurozone are unwilling to share decisions with those outside the Eurozone. States with unemployment over 25 percent have different expectations from the EU than countries with unemployment around 5 percent.
Some reforms are theoretically possible on minor institutional matters but they will not make the electorate love the EU. Nor will they boost electoral fortunes of pro-reform parties. Imagine that Nick Clegg wins the support of other states for his sensible proposal to stop the European Parliament shuttling between Strasbourg and Brussels. Will a significant number of Britons switch their vote from UKIP to the Lib Dems? What if David Cameron were to succeed in changing the EU regulation preventing doctors from working longer hours? He may well be cheered by some hospital managers, but not necessarily by doctors and patients especially when things go wrong in hospitals. (And he will not be able to blame Brussels for problems within the NHS.)
The failure to reform the EU would prompt an in/out referendum under any government and the outcome of this referendum is predetermined. The UK can possibly do without the EU, but can it do without any European integration? UKIP has a childish vision of taking all toys home and living happily on the island with no contacts with the continent. This is at odds with the modern world of cascading socio-economic interdependence. British firms do most of their business with European firms, and their exchanges need to be regulated and arbitrated in some way. British citizens are exposed to problems originating from the continent, be it in the field of migration, pollution, transport, food safety or communication. None of these problems can be tackled by the UK alone.
One thing is to dump a dysfunctional EU; another is to give up on European integration altogether. Integration does not need to be run by a single institutional centre pretending to be Europe’s mega-government. It can be organized along functional rather than territorial lines without lumping states together regardless of their actual needs and situations. It can envisage access to decisions not only for states, however small and failed, but also to firms, cities, regions and NGOs. Task-oriented European networks can have different types of membership, different modes of engagement, and different mixtures of incentives and sanctions. None of the parties is talking along these lines at present.
For UKIP, integration and the EU are synonyms. Opponents of UKIP should show that this is not the case. They should start a serious discussion about beefing up independence and resources of some 40 regulatory bodies already existing in Europe for dealing with very specific, but important issues such as the evaluation of medical products, data protection, maritime and aviation safety, disease prevention and control, racism and xenophobia. Such a discussion does not leave much space for nationalist nostalgia, but it will better serve British citizens and firms.
Those who bet their political career on EU reforms are likely to return from Brussels with little to show to their voters. It is time to embark on a more realistic European agenda. There is no need to demonise the EU, but it has clearly lost public trust across the continent and has proven unable to reinvent itself. This is quite serious if not fatal. Integration is too important to be a hostage of the EU’s uncertain fortunes.