Whether you read a conservative or a left-wing newspaper, a tabloid or the business press, you have probably read many times in the last few days that “Eurosceptic” parties had recorded large gains in the European parliamentary elections. This apparently shows that a growing number of people are “opposed to European integration”. Their mood is “anti-European“.
Depending on where the paper stands, the undercurrent is often that supporters of “European integration” are open-minded cosmopolitans, while its opponents are rather parochial. In response, “Eurosceptics” are often eager to emphasise that they speak foreign languages and have worked or studied in other European countries, fighting tooth and nail against the “little Englander” image.
This distribution of roles is rather weird. It would be unimaginable to frame the debate in such terms at any other government level. Imagine, for instance, that one or more of the major political parties proposed that city parks should no longer be managed by individual city councils, but from Whitehall, by an “English Green Space Joint Authority”. Some would criticise this proposal on the grounds that it would lead to a bureaucratisation of parks management, insufficient consideration for local circumstances, weak accountability, and the disappearance of competition between councils.
Now imagine that the media started referring to the opponents of the proposal as “Anglosceptics”, “people who are opposed to English integration”, or even as “anti-English”. Imagine supporters of the policy emphasising how marvellous it was that a country, once divided by a civil war, now manages its green spaces collectively, and their opponents eager to emphasise that they are not narrow-minded provincialists.
Plainly, the debate about the EU is going wrong because we have messed up the terminology. Politicians and commentators too often say “Europe” when they mean “the EU”, and “European integration” when they mean “political centralisation”. Take, for example, the former Europe minister Denis MacShane:
“[W]hile voters and politicians turn their backs on Europe, citizens embrace the EU as never before. There are more Brits living in Europe, running businesses or owning homes there than ever before in our history. Our low-cost airlines take advantage of the single market to make the whole of the EU the place where we shop, drink and relax. Our universities all have thriving European departments. So while our politics remains more and more hostile to Europe, our lived experience becomes ever more integrated.”
Mr MacShane is lumping together things which have absolutely nothing to do with one another. For economic, cultural and residential integration to happen, political centralisation is neither necessary nor sufficient.
For example, most citizens of Catalonia do not consider themselves Spanish, even though, technically speaking, that is what they are. They share all political institutions with the rest of Spain, but many of them reject Spanish culture and even the Spanish language.
In contrast, a citizen of Baden-Württemberg would hardly be considered a “foreigner” in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, or vice versa. These two regions are highly integrated in economic, cultural and residential terms – yet they share no political institutions (apart from a few Swiss-German bilateral treaties of a highly technical nature, which the average citizen is hardly aware of).
When artificial obstacles are removed, European integration is happening of its own accord, on multiple layers, and in diverse patterns. It does not need wise “designers” who feel they are carrying out a “historical mission”.