The extent of the disconnect between Britain and the EU has rarely been more obvious than it was this week, when the European Council agreed upon its nominees for the top jobs running the EU for the next few years. Britain was as uninterested as ever.
Sure, political obsessives and EU pundits offered their analysis, but do you think most ordinary people were discussing this as they sometimes do domestic politics? Not a bit of it. As for the British media, it busied itself discussing the Brexit party’s MEPs in the European Parliament turning their backs on the Ode to Joy.
But the process this week was a big deal. As ever with the EU, it all came across like a major stitch up, with establishment figures being forced into the top jobs after deals were made behind closed doors. After days of horse trading, Merkel’s ally the German Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen was selected for President of the European Commission.
The other jobs were: President of the European Council (Charles Michel); President of the European Central Bank – (Christine Lagarde); and High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Josep Borrell Fontelles).
In Britain, eurosceptics made predictable noise about “unelected officials” but they miss the more interesting point. Yes, the officials are unelected, but then so is the House of Lords and so are many very powerful people involved in British governance. The problem is that disconnect between the British public and the EU as a governing entity.
The democratic legitimacy of the EU in the UK has long been seriously undermined by the British public’s disinterest and lack of engagement. The British don’t know about or understand EU politics as they do domestic politics. It’s a supranational government, but for this government to have democratic legitimacy the people must have a connection to it. This is not and has never been the case.
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The British seem to have more interest and understanding of American politics than they do in the EU. Britain could never be a sustainable, integrated and enthusiastic member state of the EU (as Europhiles so desperately want) while the political process of the EU is something that seems so alien and far away to us. It needs genuine public interest in the process and participation in elections.
Media engagement and scrutiny of the EU doesn’t come close to matching reporting on domestic politics Yes, there has been more reporting in the last few years but it’s almost entirely self-interested and Brexit focused. Europhiles lament this but it’s difficult to create proper media engagement in EU politics when most of the public and, indeed, most journalists are not interested. It’s not surprising that there is far more interest in the politics of fellow English-speaking countries.
Consistent public scepticism and apathy about EU elections and the political process is part and parcel the problem of Britain’s troubled EU membership. Turnout for European Parliament elections in the UK has always ranged from 30-35% since 1979. The fact is, the EU has been a key part of the way our country is governed, it is in-effect part of our government, but the British public has no meaningful relationship with it and doesn’t engage.
Any British enthusiasm for the EU has always been tepid or transactional at best, with only a small minority of committed Europhiles. Although this appears to be changing, as Remainers become organised, even now the Remain movement is almost entirely a reaction prompted by losing a battle in a culture war and legitimate fears and concerns about what will happen when we have left.
There are only two coherent attitudes to the EU. One is to recognise that politically and culturally the UK is not a good fit in the EU. That we would only ever be a troublesome and reluctant member that looks to hold up integration and complain. That deeper integration would continue nonetheless and lead to further divergence, pushing the UK further to the margins. Thus, we will better off with a new, close partnership from outside.
The other is to believe that we must participate fully and enthusiastically, look to exert influence, get Britons into top jobs and seek to be at the heart of the project. This is what Remainers want, but for this to ever work the fundamental problem of the public’s instinctive lack of enthusiasm and interest in the day-to-day, month-by-month politics of the EU would have to be addressed. EU politics would have to become part of our culture.
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