Withholding support from EU a dangerous mistake
If the EU were to disappear, history gives us a pretty clear indication of what would replace it
The European Parliament. A majority across the EU still seem willing to vote this month for politicians grappling with imperfect reality rather than hawking baking recipes for pies in the sky. Photograph: Getty Images
At the heart of the European Union is a complex paradox which is worth reflecting on in the run-up to the European Parliament elections. Like any paradox it involves two things which seem at first sight to be in contradiction, but both of which are true.
EU member states pursue selfish interests yet manage to shape a common interest. Our peoples proudly retain their national identity, yet for the most part remain comfortable with their European identity. Any serious analysis of the EU should start with this paradox.
Unfortunately many don’t grasp the paradox, seeing only one of the two competing truths. On the one hand there are the Pollyannas for whom the EU is nothing but sweetness and light. On the other hand there are the No Way Josés who reject the EU out of hand.
These contradictory points of view proffer a narrow and false choice between Shakespeare’s “painted devil” and a Panglossian paradise.
Europe cannot be reshaped by management consultants or by magic wands
The more important debate is among those who get the paradox and who, in a world of increasing oversimplification and trivialisation, are willing to make the effort to explore Europe’s complex and sometimes contradictory reality.
Despite the global growth of populism and the sustained assault on the very nature of truth, a majority across the European Union still seem willing to make that effort, and will vote this month for politicians grappling with imperfect reality rather than hawking baking recipes for pies in the sky.
This middle-ground debate, which takes place in the realm of ambiguity where most truth finds its meaning, involves reasoned reflection not superficial slogans. At the heart of the debate lie two distinct philosophical standpoints about the EU. We could call them the No Unless Faction and the Yes Although Faction. There is a world of difference between them.
The point of view of the No Unless Faction is that that they will withhold their support from the EU unless and until it takes a form that appeals to them. They usually describe themselves as pro-European, and often see themselves as such. It is just that for them the EU which they are prepared to support is a different one from the one that exists. This point of view deserves respect, but is misguided and dangerous.
There is no other European Union. Nor will there be. That does not mean that Europe should not be improved whenever, wherever and however that is possible. Rather it is simply to point out that any reformed EU can only be designed and developed through its own procedures for legislative action or treaty change.
There is no rabbit and no hat. There are just the EU’s boring and strangely funny procedures, which just happen to be not quite as funny as the centuries of war that preceded them. Europe cannot be reshaped by management consultants or by magic wands.
The EU will only retain the support of the majority of its citizens if it maintains its underlying ethos of respect for the identity, aspirations and priorities of its peoples in all their national, political and cultural diversity.
The No Unless Faction embraces a wide range of views, from those who want the EU to be more egalitarian to those who want it to be more business friendly, from those who want a different migration policy, to those who wish it to be more explicit about its Christian roots.
These are all legitimate views in a democracy. However, although the EU has a deep common framework of values and rules, the extent to which it can transcend debates at national level is limited. It is shaped by national governments, by MEPs elected by national electorates and by a commission to which each national government appoints a member. The various competing branches of the No Unless Faction essentially blame the EU for their own failure to win debates that must be won at national level.
The Yes Although Faction, of which president Emmanuel Macron of France has recently been a leading exponent, is no less committed to reforming of the EU.
The difference is that it realises that Europe is a framework for competing ideas which necessarily result in compromise; that no single point of view, however admirable, will determine Europe’s future; that to withhold support from the precious baby because we are trying to improve the quality of the bath water is a dangerous mistake; and that if one day our European Union were to disappear no other such union would spring up to take its place on our continent.
History gives us a pretty clear indication of what would.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the EU, Britain and Italy