Flickr/Maarten van Maanen. Some rights reserved.
Six months before the elections to the European Parliament (EP), supporters of EU integration are on the defensive across much of Europe. Although the next EP is still likely to accommodate a large majority of parties which tend to argue for “more Europe”, or at least a consolidation of the status quo, the anticipated strengthening of Eurosceptic forces has already had a considerable impact on many national debates. The political momentum is clearly with those who take a tough line on Brussels’ institutions, not with those who are prepared to defend them.
This should not come as a surprise. When the “permissive consensus” in favour of European integration started to crumble in the 1990s and then crashed in the wake of the failed attempt to endow the EU with a constitutional treaty, Europe’s heads of government first chose to ignore this. They pushed ahead with institutional reform and further sovereignty pooling, drawing salient policy issues into the EU orbit. Only when the resistance to the EU’s authority and law-making grew stronger again did our politicians begin to widen the public debate on the future of the EU. In this debate, they commonly follow three kinds of argumentation.
The first emphasises the use of eye-catching statistics and figures. This is, by far, the preferred method of policy-makers to convince their respective populations that the EU is a good thing. References stretch from an increase of GDP thanks to Single Market liberalisation and a rise in cross-border trade, to a Europe-wide health insurance card and a substantial fall of mobile roaming charges due to smart, consumer-friendly EU regulation. Brussels itself now employs a good number of communication specialists who try to get the facts across. If you actually want to, you can easily find out “what’s in it for me”.
Second, some leading politicians and thinkers seek to provide a new line of reasoning when explaining the EU’s relevance in the 21st century. Fifty years ago, the EU’s raison d’être was peace and reconciliation. Now, so the argument goes, it is about power and influence: climate change, energy scarcity, international migration, terrorism, the rise of China, India and other emerging economies would all demand a much stronger collective response from Europe, if it is to preserve its living standards in the decades to come. The EU is no longer about political idealism, but straightforward Realpolitik.
The third approach rests on painting adverse scenarios in the case of EU disintegration – be it in relation to resurgent nationalism or a new wave of protectionism. This applies in particular to the threat of a Eurozone break-up which is said to be politically unmanageable and economically calamitous. As in electoral campaigning, the emphasis on negative messaging tends to be very effective in the short run. Yet it also blatantly fails to deal with the causes of unease in the first place. How to move from polarisation to reconciliation and unity remains a daunting challenge in any political system.
Looking at the latest Eurobarometer surveys gauging public attitudes towards the EU, some might argue that those three argumentative strategies, ideally in combination, are working quite well after all. If in the midst of a deep economic crisis a majority of citizens still believe in EU membership (and the euro), reason and rational thinking are indeed prevailing.
Others, however, have recognised the weakness of today’s pro-European camp. They are rightly concerned about the widening gap between policies and politics at the EU level, and how populists of all shades are taking the initiative in the debate. They recognise that there are too few recognisable politicians who can make a compelling case for transnational governance, let alone further EU integration. Pro-Europeans are therefore advised to change their “emotional frame” – nothing else will work.
Now, the influence of the ‘frame theory’ and the work by cognitive linguists such as Georg Lakoff will always be a matter of controversy when it comes to how its assumptions and findings can be applied to real politics. This article is not the place to discuss it but ultimately I side with the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein, believing that “whichever side is resorting to framing devices is losing.”
Put bluntly, if you cannot persuade your fellow citizens in candid terms that a predominantly technocratic innovation like the EU brings meaningful and practical benefits to them, then it is doomed. Making an emotionally framed argument for the ‘greater good’ of Europe will always struggle to rival those who pretend to defend historic achievements or national ‘exceptionalism’.
This does not mean that pro-Europeans should be content with the quality of today’s debate and simply ignore the unfavourable dynamics. Yet they first have to accept that the fundamental problem is more structural than rhetorical: given the current division of EU responsibilities, mainstream parliamentarians in any of the 28 member states have little incentive to consider openly the many tensions between domestic, European and global politics. Rather narrowly defined “national interest” – like or loathe the term – remains their natural benchmark and blame games are the logical extension of the debate between the EU’s capitals and its central institutions.
This matters, because in the absence of effectual and trusted messengers you cannot improve the message either. For this to change, we need to make national policy-makers assume more responsibility and thereby hand them greater ownership of the European project (for instance via strengthening the role of national parliaments or integrating national MPs into a reformed European Parliament, to name just two ideas). They must no longer be allowed to hide behind their executives but instead be dragged into defining every important aspect of EU policy-making, which they then have to defend in front of their constituents.
Increased politicisation of EU affairs is no guarantee for a more informed and rational exchange that could lead to greater acceptance of European integration. But without it, EU opponents will always have an easy run at exploiting the political vacuum that Europe has created.