The Sun is urging its readers to ‘say no to a United States of Europe'. But whatever the tabloids think, EU integration is good for Britain.
t the end of last week, EU leaders agreed a set of reforms to help the cumbersome enlarged union of 27 member states function more efficiently. Pending a signing ceremony in December and ratification by national parliaments, the new “reform treaty“, as it has been dubbed, ostensibly brings to a close the almost six-year long reform process, which sought to give the EU a constitution of sorts.
Under the new arrangement, the Union will receive two new posts. The first is a more high-profile president without executive power who will serve a 2.5 year term, instead of the current rotating six-month presidency, which has been criticised for not giving the member state holding it enough time to achieve anything significant.
Tony Blair is among the candidates for the post. Although I have misgivings about Blair, particularly given his war record and his subservience to Washington, he has the distinct advantage of coming from one of the most euro-sceptical member states.
The second position will involve elevating Javier Solana‘s role as the EU's foreign policy chief to a kind of EU foreign minister who would speak on behalf of the Union in areas where they have agreed a common foreign policy stance.
Before the ink had even dried on the deal, The Sun accused “bottler” Brown of “surrendering huge swathes of British power to Brussels for good”. In a stunning display of unadulterated hyperbole, the tabloid screamed headlines like “Brown dines at the last supper“. The Sun even mobilised such policy heavyweights as Girls Aloud star Nicola Roberts – who is “more concerned about Britain's future than her nails or make-up” – to the cause.
The newspaper claims that 100,000 Sun readers want a referendum on the rejigged EU constitution. While a referendum may look, at first sight, like a good way of deciding what has become a controversial issue, it is plagued with pitfalls.
How can you reduce a complex document filled with numerous articles on disparate areas to a simple “yes/no” question? What if the voter agrees with some parts and not others? How many voters will actually take an informed decision about the proposed treaty and how many will be swayed by the emotive rallying cries of the tabloids?
For instance, in the Netherlands and France, the “no” vote was more a vote of no confidence in their own governments, particularly in the case of Jacques Chirac, than a vote on the merits or otherwise of the proposed treaty. In fact, most Dutch or French citizens interviewed at the time knew very little about the actual document and how it would function.
I am all for following the will of the people. But in the case of this treaty, a referendum is a very poor democratic tool. In this instance, I believe we need to trust our elected leaders to work for our best interests.
What I find the most baffling in the whole debate are the conspiracy theories and the inflated power attributed to the bogeymen in Brussels. To hear some tabloids speak, you'd think that the entire continent was run from a secret dungeon in the Belgian capital by those dark and sinister continentals.
What this overlooks is that the EU is little more than a club of sovereign states who have agreed, over the past 50 or so years, to build a common market and pool some of their sovereignty in order to prevent the conflicts that have wracked the continent for centuries and address common challenges in a globalised economy. The institutions in Brussels are largely toothless and collective authority is still very much in the hands of national leaders.
With its inimitable penchant for shrillness, The Sun has urged the British public to “say no to a United States of Europe“. Given all the obstacles in its path, such a union would take generations to bring about, if we're lucky. But if I am alive to see it, I would unequivocally say yes to a democratic EU superstate, built on a federalised model of autonomy.
Of course, I can understand that globalisation and the slow corrosion of power of the nation state have instilled fear in many Britons and other Europeans, but the way to face up to these challenges is through further integration. As we approach the post-nation state era, we can proactively prepare for that day or we can hold on to sentimental delusions of our place in the world.
This is particularly important in the coming decades as every European state will see its place in the world diminish further, as corporations continue to dictate the course of the global economy, and China and India take their mantle as emergent superpowers.
In addition, the European model of multilateral co-decision-making offers a more stable and fairer model for engaging with the world than the dictatorial posturings of the superpower model which has bred so much global animosity over the last century or so.
Brits have a reputation for being euro-sceptics par excellence. But some of the leading advocates of European integration have also come from this stereotypically isolationist island. For instance, more than 300 years ago, in 1693, William Penn, who later became one of the founding fathers of the United States, advocated the idea of a “European dyet, a parliament of estates”. On reading his proposal, I was struck that, aside from the dated language, his vision resembles very much the union that has emerged over the past half-century, down to the rotating presidency. He even regards as “fit and just” that the “Turks and Muscovites” also join this union.
Addressing the euro-sceptics sovereignty fears, he notes that European nations “remain as Soveraign at Home as ever they were … So that the Soveraignties are as they were, for none of them have now any Soveraignty over one another: And if this be called a lessening of their Power, it must be only because the great Fish can no longer eat up the little ones.”
The benefits of union that Penn extolled have come to pass:
Peace preserves our Possessions; We are in no Danger of Invasions: Our Trade is free and safe, and we rise and lye down without Anxiety … It excites Industry, which brings Wealth.
Our future prosperity and stability in Europe depends on us keeping the European project alive and thriving.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 23 October 2007.