We shall soon know the results of this year’s elections to the European Parliament. In the UK, there is much speculation that the UK Indepedence Party, a eurosceptic group, will poll highly, particularly in England. There are many factors contributing to this, but one must be simple supply and demand.
There is in England a demand for less European integration, or withdrawal from the European Union. Together, people with such views make up a majority of the UK electorate, which England dominates numerically. This demand, in the economic sense, has not been met by any supplier. None of the three major parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat is seen to be offering what these eurosceptics think they want.
The secret of European integration is that power does not flow from the member states to the Union, but collectively from national parliaments to national governments. Representatives of national governments all have a seat in Europe’s second legislative chamber, the Council of Ministers. Unpopular policies can therefore be implemented through this Council, without having to worry about pesky parliamentary opposition. Effectively, every power transferred to Brussels is really transferred from the legislative to the executive branch of government, that is to say, from the directly accountable to the indirectly accountable.
Accordingly, governing parties should be in favour of this process, and Labour and particularly the Conservatives have helped it along. What of non-governing parties? We should expect them to be against the whole process, but in a triumph of principle over pragmatism, the Liberal Democrats have allowed their liberal internationalist streak to delude them into treating the European Union as some sort of federal democratic entity rather than anti-federal democracy-bypass it actually constitutes.
Even if Labour and the Conservatives are not motivated solely by the benefits brought to governing parties by EU membership, it’s certainly fair to say that they are not as eurosceptic in their policies as the general public. This leaves the field open for a fourth party.
Strikingly, people who want less integration are prepared to vote tactically for a party espousing complete withdrawal. Supporting the withdrawalists might be a rational tactic for achieving less integration. It is unknown whether less integration is on offer; less seems feasible with the accession of the ten new member states.
When the UK joined the then EEC, economic integration was presented as the end in itself. For the other countries, economic integration has been regarded as a means to the end of political integration. The debate in the UK has remained confined to economic integration; other forms of integration are treated as presumptively illegitimate. It is impossible to read the Schuman Declaration from the 50s and conclude that anyone in the UK who believed that the EEC was conceived merely as a trading bloc had not been misled. Accordingly, UK euroscepticism is often expressed alongside accusations of betrayal, or imputations of dishonesty towards the current supporters, officials or beneficiaries of European integration. The trust which must be maintained for the loosening of democratic governance which integration necessitates is therefore not forthcoming from the UK.
What the UK eurosceptics seem to want is the trading bloc they thought they were joining plus a little more democracy (for the lefting eurosceptics) or a little more national sovereignty (for the rightists). The Tories (qua leading opposition party) are starting to sing the democracy tune. Michael (of) Ancram has pointed out that the threat to expel the UK for not ratifying the EU Constitutional Treaty amounts to a declaration that the people cannot choose the constitutional form whereby they are to be governed. But the Tories are not a viable vehicle for decreasing European integration, not least because there are many people who will never vote for them.
UK eurosceptics in Northern Ireland have other choices, but British eurosceptics are basically left with a protest vote for the UK Independence Party, lest their vote for the Greens be conflated with support for certain environmental policies. This is a serious problem, as UKIP is not in a position to make detailed policies or manifestos. They cannot answer the question “Would you withdraw from a less integrated European Union?” (nor would they want to, as their supporters 50/50 on this point). Their policies on non-European issues are threadbare and not particularly nice, especially on immigration.
So I expect the effect of a large vote today for eurosceptic parties, if it occurs, will exert a dragging effect on Labour and the Tories, rather than being of wider import.
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