Who will speak for Europe?

6671a8c23e09146c3eec76a50cd3cb88At the outset of the so-called Brexit referendum campaign in February, the British tabloid The Daily Mail, in an attempt at setting out the merits for the UK to leave the European Union, published a front page editorial which asked: “Who Will Speak For England?”

The editorial evoked the words of Tory MP Leo Amery, whose famous 1939 “Speak for England!” call to arms in the House of Commons precipitated Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war the following day. In the piece, The Daily Mail, though not “suggesting there are any parallels whatever between the Nazis and EU” equated June’s upcoming referendum to the advent of World War II.

If the intention of the editorial was to gain some early momentum for the leave campaign, it backfired spectacularly. What transpired instead was an exercise in social media sardonicism. The hashtag #WhoWillSpeakForEngland started to trend on Twitter as social media users posted images, alongside said hashtag, of whom they believed would be best suited to “speak for England”.

Candidates ranging from Alan Partridge to Mr. Bean illustrated the manner which The Daily Mail’s solemn plea was received. The whole affair instead offered a snapshot of the hostility with which the majority of Britain’s print media traditionally covers the EU, while also encapsulating the change in dynamic concerning how the EU is perceived in the UK. Prior to the actual referendum campaign, the British print media, which is overwhelmingly Eurosceptic, exerted hegemony over all matters pertaining to the EU. The very real threat of a Brexit, however, has awoken sections of British society who have decided to “speak for Europe”. Whether this belated interest in the EU will be enough to secure the UK’s membership is a matter that become clearer on Friday morning.

The fat boy with glasses

In a 2008 paper titled a “Why is Britain Eurosceptic”, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform wrote that “in no other European Country is it acceptable for leading journalists to report tendentiously on, or even lie about, the EU.”

This in large part can be explained by the heavily concentrated nature of the British print press which is dominated by a few owners, the majority of whom are deeply Eurosceptic. As Mr Grant states, journalists “get away with writing factual inaccuracies because they are accountable to no one but their bosses and they face no sanction”.

Or as David Rennie of the Economist put it, the EU is the “equivalent of the fat boy with glasses who is bullied each break time: it is just what happens, it is cost free.”

In a 2008 paper titled a “Why is Britain Eurosceptic”, Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform wrote that “in no other European Country is it acceptable for leading journalists to report tendentiously on, or even lie about, the EU.”

Thursday’s referendum, however, has provided the bespectacled fat boy with some much-needed support. The days of publishing Eurosceptic articles with impunity now, it seems, appear to be over. “We have just taken three newspapers to the press watchdog” says Hugo Dixon of the “InFacts” fact-checking website, which is campaigning to remain in the EU.

“Those three papers were the Telegraph, the Express and the Mail Online. These are Eurosceptic newspapers which not only have got a particular agenda…but actually, in our view, had published seriously inaccurate news stories that got the basic facts wrong” he says.

Euro-septic, it seems, would be a more apposite description of Britain’s Eurosceptic print press. According to Mr Dixon, anti-EU stories have “been going on for years and perhaps even decades”. While many of the “myths” such as “Euro-condom” and “the EU stopping kids from blowing up balloons” propagated by Eurosceptic papers may not “sound very important or very serious”, the constant “drip, drip, drip, drip over many years of distorted coverage…starts to change the way that people look at the issue” he says.

Eurosceptic-in-chief, Boris Johnson, who according to Mr Dixon “perfected” this Eurosceptic modus operandi as a “young Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph”, recently learned about the redrawing of the battle lines concerning how the EU is covered.

After incorrectly claiming that EU regulation had prohibited the selling of bananas in bunches of more than three, his campaign team were later forced to clarify that it was a slip of the tongue due to the media backlash. That they felt it necessary to do so suggests a new level of scrutiny when it comes to the EU and its myths.

Politicians’ belated EU defence

British politicians too have changed tack. Charles Grant, in his aforementioned 2008 paper, equated pro-EU politicians to “homosexual ministers who, until the 1990s, had to keep quiet about their sexual orientation for fear of the media reaction.”

The Brexit referendum has changed this dynamic. The large possibility a UK withdrawal, it appears, has forced politicians to cast their pro-EU latency aside and offer a robust defence of the EU.

From its bloated bureaucracy to its poor record in engendering citizen engagement, the EU rightly deserves criticism. The good it has achieved, however, often gets overlooked; the securing of peace on what seemed like an infinitely war-torn continent is one obvious example. One need only observe the recent upsurge in support for far-right groups across the continent to realise that the noxious undercurrent of xenophobia is never too far from the European doorstep. For many Member State politicians, however, the EU is a convenient outlet for passing the blame.

In George Ross’ book The European Union and its Crises: Through the Eyes of the Brussels Elite, one anonymous ex-EU Commissioner expressed this belief, claiming that “the member states accept our successes and blame the EU for their problems”.

Hugo Dixon subscribes to this viewpoint, stating that “we also have to blame our politicians” for the rise of Euroscepticism in Britain. According to Mr Dixon, David Cameron must accept significant responsibility for this: “In the last six years, we’ve had a Prime Minister, who until very, very recently, has found it difficult to say anything positive about the EU”.

“Of course, he is now trying to make up for lost time…but he has left it till very much the last moment” he says.

Though the referendum campaign has not evened out the scales regarding how the EU is covered, the debate has had an engaging impact on the British population. “I think there wasn’t very much understanding of how the EU operated before and I think understanding is growing”, he says.

The recent opinion polls, however, suggest that this growing understanding among UK citizens concerning the EU could prove too little too late. While a large dollop of responsibility lays at the feet of Britain’s print media and its politicians, the EU intuitions must also take their share of responsibility.

The faltering European public sphere

In 2006, the European Commission released a White Paper on Communications Policy that tacitly acknowledged that a democratic deficit existed in the EU, stating that the EU institutions’ communication with its citizens had not “kept pace” with its expansion. Quite correctly, the paper stated that “Democracy can flourish only if citizens know what is going on, and are able to participate fully”.

Democracy in the EU, however, was not flourishing as the paper went on to admit that although many decisions which daily affect EU citizens are taken at an EU level, “People feel remote from these decisions, the decision-making process and the EU institutions”. The paper blamed the sense of “alienation” which many EU citizens feel on the “inadequate development of a ‘European public sphere’ where debate can unfold”.

One of the offshoots of the EU’s attempt to build a pan-European public sphere and engender citizen engagement with the EU was the “European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI)”. Put simply, the ECI was an EU take on the traditional form of a popular initiative which exists in different variations throughout many countries whereby once a certain threshold of collected signatures is reached within a certain period time, a vote is cast on the issue.
Unlike many popular initiatives which are by definition, examples of direct democracy, the ECI is a very weak democratic tool – an ECI requires one million signatures, from at least seven EU Member States within a twelve month period – which, as the Lisbon Treaty states, only allows its promoters to “take the initiative of inviting the [European] Commission” to change an EU law. The Commission, for its part, is obliged to give consideration to each ECI but reserves the right not to act on them.

Still, despite its weak potential for legislative impact, it was hoped that the ECI would engage and mobilise EU citizens within the EU and strengthen pan-European debate on European policies. Since its inception in 2012, however, the only debate which the ECI has inspired revolves around what an unmitigated disaster it has been and how it has fanned the flames of citizen-disillusionment with the EU.

Due to the burdensome, bureaucratic formalities imposed on each ECI, only three from over 50 initiatives launched so far have even got to the stage whereby they can “invite the Commission” to change an EU law. And in response to each invitation, the Commission has said “thanks, but no thanks!” As of yet, none of the three “successful” ECIs have brought about legal change.

The case of the “Right2Water” ECI, which sought to enshrine in EU law the protection of water services from liberalisation, and was the first ECI to collect over one million signatures within the designated twelve month period, offers a damning insight into the EU institutions’ attitude towards citizen engagement with its policies. Having spent considerable time and resources, the Right2Water campaign ultimately collected 1,884, 790 signatures across the EU. Their invitation to the Commission to implement legislation for the protection of water from privatisation, however, has so far fallen on deaf ears, with the Commission reserving its right to do as little or as much as it pleases.

Pablo Sanchez Centellas, who was the Right2Water campaign coordinator believes that by displaying such apathy towards the demands of its citizens, the institutions of the EU are playing with fire.

According to Mr Centellas, the ECI “is a petition to the King…you go to the King and you have a petition and the King says, ‘very good!’. But then you say: ‘King, I actually asked for this and as long as I don’t have it, I will continue to ask for this.’ I also said it once to the Commission: ‘When you do that, when you open the petition moment to the King, what might actually end up happening if the King doesn’t answer to the demands of the people is that the people get a guillotine and they just chop off the head of the King’. And they didn’t like the metaphor but I think it’s pretty illustrative of what the Commission actually are playing with” he says.

After an initial period of relative interest, the last twelve months has witnessed a significant drop in the number ECIs being launched. With only four ECIs currently ongoing, citizens and civil society organisations have evidently realised that launching an ECI is ultimately a time consuming exercise in futility. In essence, one of the EU’s attempts at engaging its citizens with its complex structures has done the opposite of and created citizen-disillusionment. Is it any wonder that the demagoguery employed by the Leave campaign has gained such traction with the British public?

Can’t someone else do it?

Back in the 1990s when the Simpsons was still funny, one particular episode witnessed Homer put his name forward in the election for the role of Springfield’s Sanitation Commissioner. Having been roughed up by two of the city’s bin men for calling them “thrash-eating stinkbags” after they failed to collect his garbage, Homer decided to channel his misplaced anger in the direction of the highly successful incumbent Sanitation Commissioner.

The problem for Homer’s campaign, though, is that he is clueless when it comes to the field of municipal sanitation. Predictably, it begins in disastrous fashion. His fortunes, however, take a positive turn when he thinks up of a populist campaign slogan: “Can’t someone else do it?” Despite the success of the current sanitation system, Homer makes a series of outlandish and unfeasible claims about the improvements he will make on the back of “someone else” and ultimately wins a landslide victory.

homer-1As many will remember, Homer then proceeds to spend his yearly budget in the space of a month and the city, swamped with garbage, is forced to resort to the drastic “Plan B” and move all of the city’s buildings five miles down the road.

While there have been many salient points made by campaigners backing a Brexit, the one issue that has sadly gained most traction has been the red herring issue of immigration. In what has frankly surpassed the line of downright racism on occasion – see Nigel Farage’s stomach-churning “Breaking Point” campaign poster – sections of the Leave campaign have been able to cynically frame the debate in a manner which stokes the flames of people’s basic fears. Fear of foreigners, fear of the unknown.

In what is essentially a copy and paste from the Homer Simpson book of demagogue-electioneering, the Leave campaign has successfully managed to portray immigrants from other EU countries as the be-all and end-all of all the UK’s problems. These damn immigrants! They took our jobs! Can’t someone else do it?

From this flawed viewpoint, once the UK leaves the EU, the controls which the UK government will be able to place on immigration will be the silver bullet to make Britain “great” again. This point, of course, ignores the vital role which immigration plays in the UK economy.

EU immigrants in the UK, after all, pay more in taxes than they take in public services and are, in fact, less dependent on public services than UK-born workers. Put simply, as long as the UK’s economy is strong, immigration will continue to rise. If the economy weakens, on the other hand, immigration will decline.

Moreover, slightly over half of UK immigrants come from outside the EU. This begs the question: if the UK opts to leave, where will all the anger concerning immigrants be projected once the EU can no longer be burdened with all of the blame? Not to mention the 1.3 million UK immigrants, sorry “expats”, living in other EU countries. How will a Brexit impact on them?

That the issue of immigration has dominated the debate to such an extent also reflects poorly on the EU. The compelling arguments in support of the EU, of which there are many, have largely been drowned out. This could be described as a case of chickens coming home to roost for the political elites both in Brussels and in the individual EU Member States who have happily kept regular citizens on the margins when it comes decision-making at a European level.

If the UK votes to leave, will it really come as any surprise, especially when one considers the decades-long head-start the Eurosceptic lobby have had on a UK public which has remained largely uninformed about the EU and its complexities? It is indeed a damning indictment of all involved that it has taken a measure as drastic as an in/out referendum for people to engage with the EU.

As the Eurobarometer has shown, citizens who are informed about the EU institutions and its policies tend to share a positive opinion of their country’s membership. Those, however, who are uninformed tend to be more sceptical about the EU and they constitute the majority. Not enough, evidently, is being done by the individual Member States and the EU institutions to educate and engage EU citizens.

If the UK votes to leave, will it really come as any surprise, especially when one considers the decades-long head-start the Eurosceptic lobby have had on a UK public which has remained largely uninformed about the EU and its complexities? It is indeed a damning indictment of all involved that it has taken a measure as drastic as an in/out referendum for people to engage with the EU.

From a historical standpoint, however, we are undoubtedly living in interesting times. Will it be the UK or the EU who will be forced to resort to “Plan B”? While it is all conjecture at this juncture, a Brexit could quite possibly lead to a united Ireland, an independent Scotland, and a little England. Conversely, it could simply amount to much ado about nothing. Scarily, it could also be the catalyst for the disintegration of the EU. While one ventures to think that the EU can survive a Brexit in the short term, its long term prospects look less secure unless new ways are found to place the European demos at the forefront and not on the margins of its democracy.

Comments (5)

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  1. Jesse-Blue Forrest says:

    Remember what King Henery Vlll did!

    1. Iain Miller says:


  2. Awkwardboy says:

    Does it really matter who is talking for it, if so many will not hear?

  3. John says:

    Interesting article and well worth reading. Thank you.

  4. Crubag says:

    You are assuming there is a Ruropean demos rather than many national ones. Wasn’t it someone European (to use the current terminology) who said: “All politics is local”?

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