The EU and national identity, part 1

J Clive Matthews
3 October 2007
Shifting states of Europe

Going through the full text of shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague's speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday, it's hard not to be struck by the ostensibly sensible nature of the Tories' desire for EU reform:

"Our commitment to the EU lies in our friendship with our neighbours, our belief in an open, common market, and our determination to make it a force for good in facing up to global poverty, global warming and global competition - the issues of a new world. Our hostility to more power for its commissioners and courts lies in our belief that it already has too much centralised power, and that the passing of power to ever more distant institutions feeds the disenchantment with politics which may cost our democracy dear... We will be fighting for a European Union known less for its intrusive directives, activist judges and unwillingness to face its own people, and more for its openness to the world, its flexibility and fairness"

All laudible aims, based in the traditional (and entirely understandable) conservative hatred of big government - and surprisingly similar to the professed aims both of Vice-President of the European Commission Margot Wallstrom for greater transparency (on which more later) and the growing tendency within the EU as whole towards subsidiarity over the last few years. Why centralise political power in a vast trans- or supra-national organisation when decisions are often better taken at a local level, after all? All that will do is increase inefficiency and resentment.

Yet one line in the speech betrays Hague's - and so, one assumes, the Tories' - deep ideological basis for their objection to greater EU integration. The Tories, says Hague, want an EU that "can never replace the just claim of national government to be the linchpin of democratic consent."

Yet in post-devolution Britain in particular - with Scotland now run by the Scottish Nationalists and the Scottish Executive rebranded the Scottish Government since the summer - not only does the term "national government" have an increasingly ambiguous meaning, but also the legitimacy of the claim of the nation state to be regarded as the ideal unit of democratic government seems increasingly unclear.

With Gordon Brown also currently obsessed by national identity in his constant references to that seemingly indefinable quality of "Britishness", understanding the nature of national identity is a vital one if we're to assess the EU's chances of meaningful, pan-European reform along the professed utilitarian lines of the greatest good for the greatest number.

As such, more to follow...

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