Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

Webb Essay Competition 2002 - Third Prize

By Fabien Curto-Millet.

In third place in this year's Webb Essay Competition was Fabien Curto-Millet, aged 20. Read his essay below.

OF GNOMES AND BRITONS

(or: WHY ARE WE AFRAID OF THE EUROPEAN UNION?)

by Fabien Curto Millet –

"A dark laughter rises from one of the Commission's glass towers in Brussels. Inside, a Eurobureaucrat briskly rubs his hands together. He has just devised a new set of regulations to ban bacon from breakfasts, and to standardise the diameter of yolk. A turn in the ongoing struggle to squeeze Britishness out of the British? […]"

Laughable as this may be, it is only a slight exaggeration of many people's view of the EU. The Union is seen as a legislative, identitarian highjacker, quietly undermining nations behind closed doors. Further steps on the road of European construction are welcomed with polar warmth. What stands behind this fear of the European Union? Much of it is the Union's own doing, in terms of policies and processes. But on top of this come a wealth of nationally idiosyncratic reasons. Most interesting here is the British case – a nation exhibiting particular surdity to the sirens of Brussels.

There is certainly much good to be said about European construction. Nevertheless, several disgraceful policy decisions hide behind the euro-rhetoric. These are tragic enough on their own, but also contribute to paintbrush the profile of the Union with mud, taking some shine off its achievements. The most glaring example is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). This de facto subsidy to 4% of the EU's population is the single biggest item in the budget, accounting for almost half of it. Its result, other than the familiar wine lakes and wheat mountains, is an increase in the price of food by 15-20% according to OECD estimates. The policy is expensive to Europe's consumers and – worse still – contributes to maintaining the third world in its misery. The UK is the second largest net contributor to this madness, and the resentment against the policy is proportional. Misusing half of a budget does provide some foundations for raising eyebrows. But the CAP does not cap the criticism. The Union is also associated with lacklustre economic policies. The painful monetary contraction of the early 1990s across Europe due to the EMS has not been forgotten. Now, with the advent of the Euro, other puzzling economic creatures have appeared. A notorious one is the charmingly called "excessive deficits procedure", which forces upon Eurozone countries the obligation to keep deficits under 3% GDP except in ungenerously defined circumstances . This straightjacket is too tight, clumsily designed and arguably unnecessary. It moreover gives the Commission the unpopular role of a policeman catching nations budgetarily "dirty-handed" – a perfect recipe for arousing brainless nationalistic feelings. One could go on taking examples. Although policy failure is far from being a monopoly of EU institutions, it hardly contributes to making them enter people's hearts.

But there is an additional problem: the processes through which the Union outputs policy – good or bad. For a start, few people have an understanding of what the Union does, outside a few photogenic policy areas. How many could label the Community's three policy pillars, and explain the legal decision-making implications? As for most things, what is not understood is feared. The Union suffers from a considerable lack of transparency and a deep democratic deficit. The Council of the EU, its main legislative institution, meets behind closed doors. The general political direction of the EU is determined by the political horse-trading taking place at European Summits, beyond the eyes of the cameras. What is more, the European Parliament – the principal breeze of democracy in the Union – has limited co-decision powers and deals mainly with issues of breathtaking technicality. One can even doubt who really is in control of policy; 10,000 people are believed to be employed in the lobbying industry located in Brussels – and this misses those who fly in to put forward their case . In fact, the bureaucratic machine is so complex it seems to have a life of its own: around 20,000 civil servants, carrying out over 620,000 financial operations every year . Decisions, then, seem to emerge from a godly cloud, and appear imposed by a clique of omnipotent politicians. Such complexity also opens the door for abuses. The Commission's General Directors themselves admit the difficulty of controlling certain budgets . Furthermore, all European citizens remember the shameful events of 1999 that forced the resignation of the Santer Commission, under accusations of fraud and nepotism. And these problems are in addition to the waste of resources that is visible, such as having two locations for the European Parliament – Brussels and Strasbourg. All in all, a cocktail explosive enough to scare most people.

And then, there are nationally idiosyncratic reasons for mistrust, especially important in the British case. They are to do with history, EU experience, political incentives and the sovereignty tragicomedy.

A critical difference between British history and that of other EU members is the proximity of its "global superpower" status – the Empire. That status is very much gone in the temporal dimension, but still glows brightly in the depths of the mental one. For other European countries, the wrinkles of time have buried the cognitive wreckage of such past glory (e.g. Spain), a transformation of mindsets often accelerated by wars on their soil and the experience of defeat (e.g. France, Germany). Such a background makes it easier for the national logic to consider a rational pooling of sovereignty, when one better serves the country's aims; indeed, they can even push the country into such supranational constructs more or less subconsciously, in an effort to escape from a sullied past (e.g. Germany). Britain, in contrast, was a superpower only yesterday, and stands uninvaded for almost a thousand years. Its influence waned at the pace of its relatively slow GDP growth over the past century, while others caught up and the US marched on. This historical and cognitive reality manifests itself in a variety of statements, as ridiculous as they are common – "Britain is in a league of its own" and the like . Furthermore, the Continent is not a historically neutral player with respect to Britain, and past wars or rivalries have sipped through the ages, condensing into the layer of mistrust with which it is appropriate to scan anything that comes from across the Channel. This works both ways, and one can note with interest that the Nazi propaganda machine exploited latent anglophobia in France to make the Reich look better ; and that nowadays, a touch of francophobia always makes good copy for British tabloids .

Moreover, British experience whilst in the EU was far from a sequence of merry moments. By the time the British government abandoned its go-alone plans and knocked at the EU's door, it found itself shut out by De Gaulle's presidential NON (the French again!) – a humiliation like there are few in the velvet world of diplomacy. When Britain did finally enter, much damage had already been done – especially through the CAP –, but Britain was nonetheless forced to absorb all such Acquis Communautaire, an obligation that has since fuelled much resentment. The problem was not only that the policies absorbed were indigest, but the mere fact that they had to be absorbed – a matter of David spoon feeding poison to Goliath for the defenders of the Empire faith. Never mind the fact that had Britain got its act together sooner, such unpleasant syrup could have been avoided. As if this were not enough, Britain joined in turbulent times. Membership had been championed significantly on grounds of economic benefits (reduction of trade barriers etc). But the 1973 OPEC oil crisis was the uninvited guest to the party, making such benefits hardly visible through the economic pain. Later down the timeline, after some traumatic monetarist shock-therapy and a little DM-shadowing, the UK jumped into the EMS boat – and into the next crisis. A "humiliating" devaluation followed, again on an issue relating to Europe – never mind the overvalued rate at which the pegging took place. All in all, the least one can say is that Britain has hardly had the best circumstances in its European venture for its people to shed their mistrust – however undeserved.

Furthermore, the incentives facing politicians encouraged them to tackle the fire with oil. A favourite story of anti-Europeans is that Britain was traitorously cornered into surrendering Her Sovereignty. Was this European enterprise not known as the "Common Market" in the dark 1973 days? Historical evidence to the contrary is but a mere inconvenience, such as: 300 hours of Parliamentary debate dominated by the theme of sovereignty, an explicit government white paper , unambiguous public statements etc. The dishonest rhetoric, however, pays off. It is obvious that machiavelic continentals did it! Brussels on its own is a complicated place; hiding it under layers of myths and lies makes it impenetrable, reinforcing the impression that the bureaucratic, political and lobbying activities there have a life of their own, bent on crushing peoples' democratic oxygen. Such a hellish beast is moreover a highly convenient scapegoat, as it is incapable of self-defence (who is Brussels?). Political trouble ahead? Blame continental gnomes! A classic example is provided by the Commission's efforts to regulate the motorbike industry at the European level, with the aim of generating economies of scale. This was pushed by the Council of national ministers to save the industry from death under Japanese competition. National legislations were so divergent that a compromise had to be found, including a limit on the maximum power of motorbikes. Such a limit had not previously existed in Britain, and soon Hell's Angels converged on the Houses of Parliament to uphold "Britain's ancient right to rocket-driven superbikes" . Where would you guess accusing fingers pointed?

But on no topic does the hysteria reach such formidable heights as on that of "Sovereignty". Sovereignty is often spoken of as if it were a sacred flame, passed down the ages from generation to generation, rather than as "something to be used for the advantage of our fellow citizens" . After a few such moving thoughts, rabid anti-Europeans usually move on to some Brussels-bashing, and set up a fictitious scarecrow: The Superstate. Federalism is often "explained" in Britain as being synonymous to centralisation whilst – when properly understood and implemented – it means placing power at the lowest possible point in the system. Presented in this way, it would be nothing more that a comprehensive and hopefully sensible application of the principle of subsidiarity , to which many British people are attached. But there is more behind the rhetoric than stoking history's ashes of mistrust. British people are proud of their institutions ("tested by time", as is often heard) and are especially so of their Parliament. These national institutions are the main custodians of democratic legitimacy in the EU, and often their sovereignty has been felt to be eroded by the European project. This is a real problem, which is partly structural, and partly self-inflicted. Structural, because Ministers take decisions at the European level largely behind closed doors, ultimately producing legislation that takes precedence over national one. Self-inflicted, because certain Parliaments, and Westminster especially, have been less than diligent in monitoring European developments. The gap is especially glaring when contrasting their efforts with that of the Finnish Parliament's, in which a committee grills ministers both before and after Council meetings.

If the Union seriously wants to be closer to the people it has the duty of serving, it must certainly take a hard look at itself. Many of its policies are a liability to it and its citizens, and its processes are about as comprehensible as certain cubist paintings. But much of the fear it induces is irrational, and this dimension feeds on what is rationally wrong with the EU. To save the ship, reform is a priority. But so is responsible public-speaking to deconstruct fallacious arguments either way. This will have the added advantage of providing much amusement on the political scene ("The gnomes strike back"?).