European Union: from backdoor to front

Michael Bruter
3 July 2007

In the small hours of 23 June 2007, the twenty-seven heads of states and governments of the European Union reached an agreement at their summit in Brussels on the amending treaty to replace the proposed EU constitution that French and Dutch voters rejected by referendum in 2005. The response among large segments of the press in Britain in particular was familiar; as on every occasion when a proposed new treaty is signed, they pointed an accusatory finger at the leaders responsible (in this case, departing British prime minister Tony Blair and his successor Gordon Brown) for betraying Britain and its national interest.

The opposition Conservative Party - equally predictably - joined the chorus, accusing these leaders of the equivalent of high treason and demanding an immediate referendum. To this, Blair and Brown on the centre-left as well as Kenneth Clarke on the centre-right explained that this was only an amending treaty, which changed the functioning of EU institutions far less than Maastricht (1992) , Amsterdam (1997) or Nice (2000); and that, moreover, it respected the four "red lines" announced by the outgoing and incoming prime ministers. They really made it sound like a small technical agreement which it is better not to talk about too much.

Michael Bruter is senior lecturer in European politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the author of Citizens of Europe? The Emergence of a Mass European Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). His homepage is hereThis claim that everything about the European Union is really technical rather than political (think of the so called "five tests" designed by Gordon Brown to decide whether or not Britain should join the eurozone) is systematically perceived by a majority of voters as a "backdoor" strategy. It is the equivalent of someone with absolutely nothing wrong in their luggage blushing and acting nervously when walking past customs officers at the airport. However unfairly, it cannot fail to arouse suspicion.

A majority of voters will thus believe that the agreement reached at the Brussels meeting probably must be bad indeed, even though political experts across the ideological range privately agree that it actually makes Britain better off in a number of ways and worse off in none. Considering that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and Kenneth Clarke are some of the shrewdest and most intelligent politicians in the country, why on earth would they choose such an apparently dumb "backdoor" tactic, one that will always make them look suspicious in the eyes of the public?

The answer is probably threefold. First, they think that the people, however suspicious, will not be worried enough to actually do anything (this is a variation of what political scientists call the "permissive consensus". Second, they believe that - largely because of a fiercely Eurosceptic press and the negative prejudices accumulated by public opinion for years - a "front-door" policy would be destined to fail, however good the treaty might be. Third, pro-Europeans like Blair and Clarke probably hope that ultimately, Europe will impose itself, because they believe it is a good thing for the country and that it will "grow into" the British people and find acceptance among them.

Their reasoning is as understandable as that of those citizens who believe that if the government tries to sneak Europe through the backdoor, there must be a catch. However, both positions are most probably equally mistaken. It is clearly for every individual citizen to decide how he or she stands with regards to European integration; but at the very least, it is time to correct a few myths about the new treaty, about Europe in general, and about public opinion and European identity in Britain. Here, then, are ten of the many such myths, recycled in various forms of media and public discourse in the aftermath of the Brussels summit.

Ten myths about Europe

Myth 1: "There is a catch"

When someone blushes on the way past the customs people, it usually signals fear of what they might be thinking rather than shame for what the person is carrying. The British government's defensiveness and low profile about the amending treaty derives not from any shame about its contents but from the immense power of a Eurosceptic media that focuses all its energies and narratives on reinforcing anti-EU prejudice. This makes it difficult if not impossible for a fundamentally pro-European leader to find level ground on which to support the argument for Europe; and base political calculation can make cowardice a more attractive short-term option.

Myth 2: "It is not what we signed for"

Yes it is. Individuals are entitled to think that signing was or was not a good idea, but the suggestion that the United Kingdom was (in 1973) joining a European Economic Community that was or would remain "only" a free-market area is indefensible historically and absurd in principle. The Rome treaty of 1957 was a monument of federalist prose, much more so than any subsequent European Union agreement. It made extremely ambitious declarations about citizenship, a common foreign policy, and more; its flaw was that it did not do a good job at setting out the rules to achieve them. In fact, the Paris treaty of 1951 had been even more federalist, and it was also part of the package Britain ratified in 1973. People can sign documents without reading them, but the fact cannot be denied that Britain signed up to a political Europe with both hands and with eyes wide open.

Myth 3: "The new treaty creates EU embassies for the first time"

No it doesn't. These embassies already exist and have existed for over fifty years! The first delegations of the European commission were created in the 1950s, have expanded ever since, and became delegations of the European Union with the Amsterdam treaty. According to diplomatic protocol, the heads of delegations since the 1960s must be referred to as "ambassadors", and the delegations are on the list of state representations, not international organisations (as well as arguably doing a very good job in helping European citizens and companies).

What the treaty does in this area is to remove these delegations from the monopolistic control of the European commission ("Brussels") and transfer control to the new foreign-policy representative, who will be chosen by the member-states. It also adds professional diplomats from national civil services to the commission civil servants who have hitherto staffed them.

Myth 4: "European institutions are less trustworthy then national ones"

Well, in any case, they are more trusted. In 1980 there was no country in Europe where the European commission was more trusted than the national government or where the European parliament was more trusted than the national one. In 2004, people in fourteen of the fifteen member-states trusted the European commission more than their national government, and thirteen of the fifteen trusted the European parliament more than the national one. And in both cases, the British people trusted the European institution more than the national one.

Myth 5: "Thank goodness we have opt-outs!"

Today, citizens from twenty-six of the EU's member-states are protected against such things as the government retaining their DNA samples if they have committed no offence, or the said government selling the DNA in question to private companies. The European Court of Justice will in each case defend the rights of citizens if these are violated. But none of this applies to Britain, whose people will not benefit from the same protection. Is that so wonderful? The problem with opt-outs is that they are usually symbolic ways for a state to show its difference; however, they always apply to rights, never to duties. That is why choosing to opt out is worse than taking the whole package 99% of the time.

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union's Brussels summit:

John Palmer, "Europe: the square root of no" (20 June 2007)

Kalypso Nikolaïdis & Philippe Herzog, "Europe at fifty: a new single act" (21 June 2007)

John Palmer, "Europe's next steps" (26 June 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "The Polish confusion" (28 June 2007)

Myth 6: "The European union is a massive bureaucracy"

There are fewer civil servants working for the whole of the EU administration and its 490 million inhabitants than in the city of Cardiff alone!

Myth 7: "Tony Blair surrendered the national veto in forty major policy areas"

Almost none of the areas where the June 2007 agreement replaced unanimity by majority-vote is in any way significant. Moreover, in many of these cases it was none other than the United Kingdom that had persistently asked for majority rule, sometimes since the Margaret Thatcher years! For example, in the context of immigration policy, most EU member-states support the tough British view - but one or two "softer" countries have so far been blocking the imposition of stricter regulation and control, and majority rule is seen as a way of overcoming this.

Thus, it is mistaken in the extreme to think that the UK is always the reluctant, lagging element in Europe and never in a proactive, demanding position. Rather, London is always seeking more integration or simplification in a number of areas; though of course, it cannot impose on others the choice of where to go further and where not. By and large, in the Tony Blair years, Britain has been highly successful at pushing its agenda.

Myth 8: "Europe costs us more than it brings us"

The problem in cost-benefit evaluations, as any political scientist knows, is that it is always much easier to put a clear figure on costs than to evaluate benefits. The positive outcomes of (for example) major transport projects or medical research are almost always less immediately visible and calculable than the expense they entail. In the case of the European Union, Britain's net contribution (in pure tax terms) is extremely small, after taking into account the large sums of money paid by the EU to help regional regeneration and public infrastructures like new roads and railways, as well as the rebate. The indirect financial gains (as evaluated by financial institutions and British companies) are arguably enormous. There are also many non-financial benefits which enrich people's lives and which they seem to enjoy even more.

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union in a decisive year:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life" (15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth" (21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2057)

George Schőpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday" (23 March 2007)

Mats Engstrőm, "Europe's green power" (26 March 2007)

Simon Berlaymont, "Tony Blair and Europe" (30 May 2007)

Myth 9: "British people feel less and less European"

In surveying time-series data between 1973 and 2005, I found that the average index score of declared European identity among British people has been multiplied by 2.5. True, levels of European identity in Britain remain lower than in most (not all) EU member-states, but their increase has been more rapid than in the majority of its neighbours.

Here, I distinguish between two components of European identity, civic and cultural, and find that whilst most Europeans feel in the main "civically" European, British and Swedish citizens feel predominantly "culturally" European. This makes perfect sense: when asked what it means to them to be European, most citizens refer to freedom of movement and borderlessness (embodied in the Schengen agreements), and then to the euro. The United Kingdom has stayed out of both projects, which means that it simply does not mean the same thing to be a European Union citizen in the UK as it does in (for example) Germany, Finland, or France.

In every single member-state, levels of European identity rose sharply after the implementation of the Schengen agreement and the circulation of the euro (but there was no evidence of such a surge preceding these initiatives). Arguably, a lack of courage among British politicians in arguing for the euro and Schengen has prevented citizens from being in a position to choose to experience what other citizens claim is the best part of the EU.

Myth 10: "We can't agree with anyone else on Europe"

All surveys show that citizens of all member-states - from Britain to Spain, from Denmark to France, from Ireland to Hungary - agree that the EU should be made more democratic. All citizens want significantly more powers to be transferred to the European parliament, and a vast majority want to be able to directly elect a president of the European Union rather than have him or her appointed for them. The heads of states and governments refuse these reforms (short of some marginal extensions of the co-decision procedure which gives more power to the European parliament) because the obscurity of decision-making procedures offers them political protection when they want to use the European Union to take the lead on some necessary but unpopular measures.

The conclusion is as compelling as it is self-evident. The way forward in Europe, which is also the only one majorities in all member-states (including Britain) support, is to pursue a process which most politicians do not yet have the courage to endorse: daring to make the European Union more democratic.

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