I wrote about this last year, but it’s a good time to revisit the issue, given the quality (or perhaps ‘quality’) of the media coverage of the European elections to date. This has – as expected – framed these elections in terms of national politics and priorities, rather than European ones. Even the innovation of televised debates between the lead candidates of the European Parliament groups failed to spark anything more than passing interest.
The reasons are as obvious as they ever were: a media that doesn’t want to devote too much space to a topic that doesn’t shift units; a political class that doesn’t want to devote too much time to a topic that doesn’t win many votes (and might actually cost them some); and a public that thinks it doesn’t matter because the media and politicians don’t talk about it. A classic vicious circle, in other words.
It might be tempting to look for a silver lining in all this, but I’m not sure that one exists. The persistent failure to develop a genuine debate about things European ultimately means that the disconnection between publics and politicians gets ever wider and the space for critical discourse to flourish grows ever larger. The upshot is that the potential for reforming European governance gets smaller, as the possibility of radical change gets larger.
In all this, European politicians have still to grasp the difficulties involved, at least in their rhetoric. By pointing to the deeply interlocked nature of European integration, they suggest that piecemeal change cannot take place, not least because of the veto rights of other member states to any treaty reform. Hands get thrown in the air and those who might have been vectors for building reformed practices become more radicalised. Neunreither (whose work has informed a lot of my own) talked about this over 15 years ago and it’s as true now as it was then, despite everything that has happened with the Constitutional Treaty, Lisbon, the eurozone crisis and the massive proliferation of eurosceptics across the continent.
If there is no silver lining (unless one wishes to see the EU broken up), then possible solutions remain clear. Primarily, this requires civil society actors (individual and collective) to keep pushing the creation of grassroots, bottom-up debate. One of the most striking things I have personally encountered in giving talks around the UK (and around the EU for that matter) is the appetite for information and discussion that people have displayed: in many classes, they have understood that they do not see more than a fraction of what happens in the EU and they are by turns interested and concerned.
This might all sounds a bit pie-in-the-sky, but it is no more so than the way that sceptics have managing to persist and grow in the post-Maastricht period: a steady chipping away at the debate, putting out lines of attack that are either ignored or not fully addressed, gradually building into a substantial body of criticism that carries weight in political debate.
To use the tools and language of democracy and identity has been one of the most successful choices of the eurosceptic movement, for it has been largely unanswerable. For those who would rescue the EU, or reform it from within, they too need to learn this lesson if they are to have a chance.