Right after the summer the European Parliament adopted measures giving EU political parties a legal boost through new transparency and financing rules allowing them to present rosier cheeks to voters in 2014. Like everything else these days, the move must be seen against the continent’s economic crisis which, by European Commission President José Manuel Barroso’s own admission, “is fuelling populism and extremism”.
The political barometer dropped even further when the Commission Chief in his State of the Union address called for a “federation of nation states” which would hand over more powers to Brussels at the expense of national governments.
But electorates are getting tired of the clip-clop rhetoric of an ‘ever closer union’ and for now are less interested in where the crisis will end than how much it will cost. To this one can confidently add the increasing suspicion of bureaucrats and, especially, politicians right across the political spectrum and in all member nations.
These forbidding circumstances must be a good season for eurosceptics; the crisis underscores their case, as they do not fail to point out. That may be so, but on the other hand aggressive sceptics, as opposed to the more numerous lazy cynics among us, have not managed to put all their arguments on the same charge sheet. A satisfactory, agreed definition of euroscepticism has yet to be found. Does it really mean all or nothing, in or out? Can it not include the need for a better Europe rather than “more Europe”? Sceptics come at the EU from so many different directions and at so many levels of intellectual and emotional endeavour their fusillades begin to scatter. As the smoke drifts away, the EU’s strategic structure is revealed to be more or less intact, its defenders busy plotting even more extensions and bigger budgets. The federalists are hard at work, in UK Independence Party MEP Roger Helmer’s delightful phrase “the hectoring voices rehashing old certainties”.
But EP eurosceptics lack manpower and, when you think about it, it’s pretty cheeky of them to be there at all, being so handsomely rewarded by an employer they wish to maim or even destroy.
It was a distant British Labour Administration which came up with the wheeze of putting sceptics in the EP. in those days MEPs were nominated, not elected – inconceivable though that now seems – and one of the favoured was an ex-Minister called Barbara Castle whose husband, Ted, was also nominated to the institution. The idea of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or the other way round if you prefer, was born then – 40 years ago – persisting for some while until direct elections put paid to equivocation.
But genuine eurosceptics are not for the politically fastidious. The pronouncements of UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage are a familiar sound, and Jean-Marie le Pen and his daughter Marine are also pretty vocal; there are a scattering of lesser knowns from Italy’s Lega Nord. A few Poles, Czechs, a Finn, a dane and some Irish also “trend” eurosceptically, believing the Commission President is “out of touch with reality”.
Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic harbour deep resistance to the sort of Europe Barroso wants, fearing it will leave too much power in the hands of unelected officials and leave small countries at the mercy of bigger eupowers. After decades of communist oppression, that’s hardly surprising.
However, the most effective critic of the European Union is a British Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan, who has just published a book A Doomed Marriage: Britain and Europe which, despite its title, punctures the whole EU project with gleaming acuity.
One doesn’t have to agree with Hannan to admire the intellectual panache with which he develops a eurosceptic case. He can do it in French or Spanish in the Chamber and frequently does, a modern cosmopolitan without a chip on his shoulder or an obsession to nurture.
But in the political size of things he speaks really and only for himself, slightly feared and often cold-shouldered.
If there were robust debates in the EP rather than a succession of timed statements, spokesmen on all sides of the arguments about the future of Europe would be more widely known. But if we accept, as we probably must, that Brussels and the European Union are increasingly distant from electorates, isn’t it a paradox that voting in direct elections to the EP declines every time they’re held?