Charles Grant makes a rather old-fashioned and out of date argument in his latest CER essay: "Why is Britain Eurosceptic?" In some ways it sums up what is wrong with the debate about the EU. Hence this long and rambling blog post. Bear with us.
His argument is framed around the old 'Europe, yes or no' question, instead of the far more relevant question today of 'What kind of Europe do we want?' His argument is all about being 'pro' or 'anti' EU; about "Britain on its own", or going along with everything the EU does without criticism. He even goes into the old debate about whether British people have more in common with Americans or Europeans.
The notion of 'euroscepticism' is becoming more and more shaded all the time. It is no longer the case that those who reject further European integration are 'anti'-European or even anti-EU. As the EU gathers more and more capacity to act in more and more areas of our lives, it inevitably starts to pick up more and more critics. People are critical of the EU for all sorts of different and valid reasons.
Indeed critics of the EU these days come in many different shapes and sizes, and until the EU and its strongest supporters such as the CER start to acknowledge that, then the whole idea of the EU will move further and further away from the people until there is no way back.
The British people may well be the most 'eurosceptic' people in the EU (with some very close competition from the Austrians, Latvians and others), but that does not mean they reject the EU outright. The polls show that given a choice, the majority of British people want to remain in the EU, but are sceptical about the agenda for further integration and ever closer union. That is a healthy and legitimate position and should not be dismissed.
Grant argues that British euroscepticism is down to five things: history, geography, the economy, the social and cultural environment, and above all, it seems, the "eurosceptic" British media. He says: "the steady drip, drip, of anti-EU propaganda over many years, having permeated deep into Britain’s political culture, has made a major contribution to the shift in British public opinion since the late 1980s: the country has become more eurosceptic."
In this sense the paper reads very much like the note leaked by the European Commission recently to the Irish press, which complained that the 'Eurosceptic' British media was behind the Irish no vote.
There is no doubt that all these things are part of the picture about why the EU is increasingly unpopular in the UK. But, just like the Commission's own communication strategy documents (as we've explored elsewhere) it totally ignores the possibility that, shock horror, people might have valid objections to the EU's policies, its method of decision-making, its approach. Maybe, just maybe, people are genuinely concerned about what is going wrong - on everything from trade to foreign policy to overregulation and poor accountability and transparency.
It is a very patronising argument.
It's patting heads and saying, "it's ok, you're only criticial of the EU because of your country's political and economic standing, its history and geography, and the lies peddled to you by the papers you read." It completely fails to take seriously the growing discontent with the EU, and it also gives the impression that criticism of the EU is unacceptable and intolerable, rather than a very healthy part of democracy.
Out of 6,000 words about why people are turning away from the EU, 480 in the CER paper discuss the failure of the EU to sign off its accounts for 14 years in a row, and the failing Common Agricultural Policy. Even this is qualified with: "The inability of the EU institutions to explain simply and clearly why they do what they do, and how EU policies and programmes help ordinary citizens, is legendary."
Only in passing, does it mention that many small businesses are 'eurosceptic' because they see the EU as a source of red tape, implying by the tone that this is an unjustified misperception. It's hard to think of a more valid reason why a business would be critical of an organisation it felt was costing it more to run.
Grant laments the fact that 'even' the "Pro-European" newspapers "still print much that criticises the EU". What good would the free press be if it didn't criticise government?
He complains that "The British media – and not just the tabloids, but also the BBC – like to portray Brussels as a story about epic battles, victories and defeats." But isn't this the way to get people to actually engage with the EU - which the Commission always says it wants to? As LSE Professor Simon Hix writes in his book 'What's wrong with the European Union and how to fix it', "until there is genuine political drama and intrigue in Brussels, TV and newspaper editors will have no incentive to cover EU politics".
At least the British media covers the issue of the EU to some degree. As a journalist from one of the main quality German papers recently reminded us, during the debate on the EU Constitution, several papers in the UK published summaries of the Constitution, something which would never happen in Germany, for instance. This, he said, shows that the media in the UK at least tries to shoulder its responsibility to inform the public. In contrast, coverage of EU affairs in European newspapers is paltry for the most part.
Yes, sometimes the papers do get it wrong. But it's not just the tabloids, as Grant claims. For example, several continue to constantly claim that the Lisbon Treaty would significantly increase the powers of national parliaments, even though this has been shown to be false by the Commons EU Scrutiny Committee, among others.
It's interesting that Grant has a go at "bold, striking and often inaccurate front pages" in the British press. Presumably he isn't referring to the "Pro-European" Independent, whose last bold and striking front page on the subject claimed that '50 reasons to love the EU' included "Europe has revolutionised British attitudes to food and cooking", "Britons now feel a lot less insular", "British restaurants now much more cosmopolitan" and, to finish: "Lists like this drive the Eurosceptics mad".
Yes, very accurate and professional journalism from the 'pro' EU media there.
Grant also claims that "the most eurosceptic newspapers – the ones which claim that Brussels bureaucrats exercise increasing power over Britain – do not bother to have full-time correspondents in Brussels". Again, presumably he isn't talking about the Independent, which also doesn't bother to send a correspondent, but which regularly writes favourably about the EU.
At the end of the essay, Grant admits that "even if the British people tend to be the most
eurosceptical, as the Eurobarometer surveys show, their views on the EU are less divergent from the rest of Europe than they used to be."
Surely this means the time is now riper than ever to have a more serious debate about the future of the EU and Britain's relationship with it? To stop dismissing people's concerns about the EU as simply the result of their entrenched historical, geographical, economic and social DNA and start to have a real debate about what kind of EU we want?
The paper boldly says: "The British are the last people in Europe to understand how the EU is changing." Maybe that is because they never get asked what they think. Research shows that referendums held on EU issues in countries like Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland makes them far more likely to answer questions about the EU correctly. If we want people to understand the EU, then it's time we had a proper debate.