Welcome to The Eurosceptic! Consider this blog a home for all who disagree with continued European integration, and a point of reference for all who don’t yet know how they feel about this 70-year-old process. To those who believe that ever-closer union is inherently good, I welcome you to read through the blog posts that ensue. Encouraging better understanding of the complex roots of euroscepticism and its diverse motivations is an important endeavour in its own right. The West is undergoing significant shifts and, at the very least, avoiding caricature and promoting mutual understanding is a worthwhile goal.
First, we need a definition of euroscepticism. By scanning academic literature on the subject, many variations emerge, based on nation, degree of scepticism, or time period. As such, I’ve settled for the broadest, most accessible definition I could find: good old Wikipedia. According to this definition, euroscepticism “is criticism of and strong opposition to the European Union (EU). Traditionally, the main source of euroscepticism has been the notion that integration weakens the nation state, and a desire to slow, halt or reverse integration within the EU.” I broadly agree with this definition, although there is a long history of euroscepticism within groups not explicitly concerned by the weakening of the nation-state, like libertarians and environmentalists. In any case, euroscepticism as I see it encompasses all resistance, no matter the motivation, to the attempted political, economic, and cultural integration of Europe’s peoples.
This first blog entry aims to explain how I got here. The creation of The Eurosceptic represents the culmination of 11 years of keen interest in the process of European integration, starting in 2005, when I first encountered its true consequences.
During my childhood, I was fairly ambivalent towards the rather benign looking gold star-laden blue flag that occasionally appeared alongside the flags of European nations. I remember asking my aunt what it meant, to which she responded “it’s the European Community”. By that time, the European Economic Community (EEC) had already changed its name to European Union (EU), but my aunt –like most people in Europe– had no reason to be up to snuff on changes occurring in faraway Brussels.
“European Community”… a rather nice sounding phrase, reminiscent of a close-knit neighbourhood—one where neighbours watch over each other’s children as they play in a park. It also invokes the ideals of postwar reconciliation. Never again would such atrocities as the Holocaust and the carpet-bombing of cities occur on European soil. It was now time to face a promising future hand in hand.
Needless to say, I, as my aunt, did not take much notice of the blue flag, nor the institutions it represented. As far as we knew, the EU was as docile an entity as the UN, if not more so. And so I slumbered through my childhood.
I was an adolescent when the EU presented its Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (TCE) as the way forward for the continent. National leaders, including Britain’s Tony Blair and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder, trumpeted its virtues, with the latter claiming that “We will reproach ourselves later if we let slip this historic opportunity to advance Europe”. French President Jacques Chirac was so certain of the Constitution’s significance to his homeland that he called it “the daughter of 1789”, in reference to the French Revolution. And so the French were presented a referendum on the Treaty’s ratification, along with several other member states.
On May 29, 2005, the people of France decisively rejected the Treaty, with 55% of ballots cast against it. The Dutch followed suit three days later by even greater margins (61% against, 39% for).
I remember the front page of my local newspaper, featuring a photo of a young, angry French woman holding a placard of protest, surrounded by a sea of demonstrators. I read the article accompanying the photo, which described the many grievances that disparate, seemingly unrelated or indeed opposing groups within French society had with the 200-page Treaty. Important labour unions saw the TCE as a means of eroding hard-earned workers’ rights, while Gaullist hawks saw it as an affront to France’s national sovereignty. Most striking to me, however, were the grievances of farmers.
Despite being among the primary beneficiaries of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, a large majority of French farmers voted against the Treaty. Though different sectors within agriculture had different motivations, a common thread among them was the worry that regulatory change was usually most beneficial to large producers, at the expense of smaller-scale farming operations. This worry was founded in more than the simple advantages of scaling up operations afforded to larger firms, it was—and to many still is—about the protection of France’s famed culinary diversity, under threat from harmonized regulation and production. It’s one thing to see oneself as a producer of food, it’s quite another to see oneself as a steward of centuries of gastronomic heritage. For example, there have been decades of tension between regulators and some dairy farmers, notably cheesemakers using raw milk to produce many of France’s best-known cheeses.
In my exposure to this tension, I was suddenly struck by the absurd juxtaposition of distant—however well meaning—bureaucrats tucked away in Brussels developing these regulatory frameworks, with farmers who had inherited centuries of savoir-faire (artisanal know-how). These people were intimately connected to their land, its bounty, and the unique nuances it brings to the world. In the name of harmonizing practices for perceived economic and sanitary gain, the EU was gradually erasing entire branches of Europe’s living heritage.
To me, this was about far more than cheese. It felt like an affront to all that is good about the European continent. Europe’s greatest strength has always been its diversity. Diversity in landscape, language, culture, art, diet, know-how, institutions, and philosophy (to name a few) has shaped the continent to the benefit of all.
Of course, these differences have an ugly side, namely the inter-cultural conflicts that culminated in atrocities from Auschwitz to Srebrenica. However, there is a difference between embracing a spirit of “never again” in response to these monstrous events, and the denial or discouragement of heritage and diversity. Indeed, there is an enormous gulf: the former promotes mutual understanding and respect between cultures, the latter seeks to erase these cultures.
From the important fork in the road to European unification presented by the 2005 votes in France and the Netherlands, I became suddenly aware of the deep, insidious nature of the problem at hand. I began dedicating a substantial effort to better understanding the process of European integration, as well as the ideological tenacity of those driving it.
As many of you know all too well, the emphatic “no” to the Constitutional Treaty was followed soon after by the same document in all but name—the Lisbon Treaty, which would not require the approval of electorates. This more convenient route for an unpopular document did, however, require the say of the people of Ireland, who are constitutionally required to hold referenda on such fundamental changes. On June 12, 2008, the Irish followed in the footsteps of their French and Dutch counterparts by voting against the Lisbon Treaty.
In Brussels, this would not do. The Irish, it seemed, had not made the “right” choice. The process of European integration is a one-way street: it does not reverse, it can only move forward. After months of campaigning by figures such as French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Ireland was made to hold virtually the same referendum a second time, so as to vote as they were expected to the first time around.
Succumbing to local and international pressure, the Irish voted on October 2, 2009 to reverse their original decision, paving the way for such fundamental changes as the creation of a President of the European Council (essentially an EU president), a High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to act internationally on behalf of all member states, and the granting of legal personality to the EU, enabling the EU’s involvement in international treaties, among other things. Much has been written or said about the Lisbon Treaty’s disadvantages, but what I find most disturbing is the manner in which it was introduced.
This relentless, almost dogmatic pursuit of an ideal vaguely resembling a European nation state persists, leaving a trail of ruin in its wake. The Great Recession triggered in 2008 brought several member states to their knees, leading to government bailouts by the EU, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for the application of punitive economic measures. Essentially, sovereignty in one of the last major areas controlled by national governments—budgets—was lost in exchange for higher public debt. Regardless of the fiscal excesses of certain eurozone states prior to the recession, the loss of the ability for democratically elected parliaments to decide how their constituents’ taxes are spent represents further consolidation of power by an unelected body.
Greece almost took a leap into the unknown in 2015, when there appeared to be an insurmountable impasse between its recently elected government and its “troika” of creditors. But the ideological leanings of its prime minister, and that of almost all other member state and EU leaders, would not allow for a Greek exit from the common currency. To them, regaining control of their monetary and fiscal policy was not worth forsaking the unassailable goal of European integration. No cost was too high to preserve this ideal, not even the dignity and sovereignty of a people who had spent the better part of the past three centuries struggling to obtain and defend their independence from foreign interests.
After 11 years of disappointment at the relentless siphoning of power from the hands of people and their democratic institutions into those of an opaque bureaucracy, 2016 marked an important turning point.
On June 23rd, the British electorate defied expectations by voting to sever its ties with the European project. After more than four decades of membership, representing some of the most important leaps into integration, the United Kingdom made the decision to face the world as a confident, independent nation, rather than continue submitting its competencies to Brussels. British democracy, representing more than eight centuries of incremental progress, had decided to free itself from a foreign government, restoring the supremacy of its parliament and the people who vote it into power.
The Brexit vote has shone a ray of hope into an otherwise gloomy pattern of power converging on Brussels at the expense of increasingly disenfranchised electorates. The peoples of Europe are waking up to the confiscation of their institutions, democracies, and identities by a distant political body. This awakening inspires me, and spurred the decision to share the perspective I have spent the last 11 years developing. The time has never been better for the nations of Europe to regain their independence, and the freedom to cooperate as they see fit.