Europe: Something snapped last summer

By Rosemary Bechler

As co-founder of a UK-wide network — Citizens for Europe (C4E) — I sometimes wonder whether the British have contributed anything to Europe since Lord Byron. Even he, some might argue, had a propensity for confusing himself with a "true-born son of Greece" which was at the least, insincere. But I think he made himself useful. His Byronic stance — at once empathetic, peculiarly clear-eyed and yet hugely ambitious in a not uncontradictory way — resting on a conscious and unceasing negotiation between the "Cursed Self" and something more heroic, might come in very useful in an enlarging EU. And we who live in what he described as this "tight little island" surely have much to learn from his deep-seated cosmopolitanism... But Childe Harold's Pilgrimage was a long time ago and there is all too little poetry in European citizenship nowadays. So, how did I get involved in C4E?

Something snapped last summer. There had been a whole batch of initiatives in the 90s in which I was involved, of limited effectivity: Continental Drift — a panel discussion; a lively European Open Forum in Edinburgh, and 1996 and All That — a series of seminars running up to that inconclusive IGC. Each of these events was marked by the conviction that those crafting the European structures would want to listen, sooner or later, to what people thought, and that we should be prepared to be asked. Kind MEPs participated and were encouraging. We took an expectant interest in the key decisions, in the architecture, in the big challenges of the future.

There was more hope when New Labour came to power. After all, John Smith had paved the way for improved relations, and the end of the Cold War deprived the British Government of its role in the world as chief assistant to the USA. Some of us looked forward particularly to People's Europe — a major meeting of NGOs and individuals from across Europe which marked the end of the British presidency of the EU in 1998, and which strove manfully to demonstrate the potential in a close encounter between big players in the EU and its citizens.

But the Eurocrats went home, and somehow it was not to be. Over the years, the suspicion surfaced that the pro-European elites, rebuked into silence by the recession in the early 90s, might not ask for anything. Perhaps they had all been suffering from the same fatal disease — the belief that economic integration was a gigantic engine which would drag everything else — governance, culture, citizenship, legitimacy — after it.

Britain reverted to its traditional Euro-scepticism, and instead of a broader debate, we were offered a referendum on the euro — an economic decision so technical as to be almost confined to a Chancellor capable of keeping all of his five criteria in the air at the same time! As Meghnad Desai put it at this month's C4E London Brainstorm, "Currencies are mystical things, but by 2010 at the latest, once it becomes demonstrable that the British economy is bleeding outside, Britain will be in the euro. And in the meantime, who is going to get worked up about a currency?" Many of us would agree.

No real debate

So why on earth did we choose to get involved — again? I repeat, something snapped. Last summer, in the face of a steady stream of half-truths, reductionist arguments and sheer prejudice from our Euro-sceptic media — it finally seemed unbearable that there was, quite simply, no debate. We drew up a list of pro-European Britons of various strands of opinion and social standing — whom we knew felt profoundly disenfranchised. These frustrated people, we reckoned, were perfectly capable of contributing to a reasoned discussion of key issues affecting all our futures, given a little encouragement.

The e-list steadily grew, with some useful VIP Europeanists in full support. Political partners and institutions greeted our arrival with relief, as if we had aired some too well kept family secret. We have begun to think about accessible website zones which could open up pluralist debate for those not yet involved; correspondence circles, local press packs and discussion groups, speaker training videos, and public panel debates. And also about local and special interest groups, which could share thoughts about what Europe means to the Guild of Food Writers, young parents, or people living in the North East of England — about what it means to "us". The Sun's enthusiastic endorsement of a Labour victory in the forthcoming elections might mean that Europe is off that agenda. It's another missed opportunity. But we at least have something to get on with...

Ask me what kind of Europe I would like to see emerge from an enlarging EU, and I might demur, on the grounds that mine is only one opinion among many. Brendan Donnelly, Deputy Leader of the pro-Euro Conservative Party recently addressing our C4E London Brainstorm, warned us that we could lose the euro referendum if the debate appeared to be hijacked by leftwing aspirations for a social Europe, or any one single "good". He reminded us how well it can work that different peoples and constituencies find different "goods" in the EU.

This strikes a certain chord in our adversarial British culture. The same genuine appreciation for being in the company of difference, prompted our press release for the C4E launch dinner in the Goodge Street Original Spaghetti House. "What do Emma Baroness Nicholson MEP for the South East; Julia Gash, designer and founder of a niche British fashion business; Juliet Lodge, Professor at the Centre for the Study of Law in Europe; Angel Blagev — a Roma student from Sofia and British Council intern; the editor of "World Organics News", an 81-year old holocaust survivor and a renowned food writer... have in common?" — we asked. It was a great evening...

But if you persist in the question, I would refer you to Ian Christie's excellent Green alliance/Demos pamphlet — Sustaining Europe: a common cause for the European Union in the new century. Here he argues that having achieved, and even surpassed its post-war vision on a ravaged continent — what Europe now requires is a popular new mission to cope with the challenges of enlargement, globalisation and environmental degradation. Why not sustainable development?

This project can help us support an emergent new politics of "quality of life", work towards social inclusion, create new high-skill and low-skill jobs, and define the role of the EU on the international stage. It can even tackle the democratic deficit, since at the European, as at the national level, this is "not mainly a problem of the form of politics" but "stems from the decoupling of elite preoccupations and indicators from the concerns of the wider public". Meanwhile "reproducing traditional forms of representative democracy at EU level is unlikely to work": we will not "bridge the democracy gap in the EU simply by boosting the parliament's powers or voting for the next Commission President". I couldn't agree more.

Fears for Europe

This cheering vision certainly speaks to many of my deepest fears for Europe: of a widening division between rich and poor, leaders and led; growing insecurity and xenophobia, in which immigration becomes the battlefield between Europe and its internalised Other, and so on and so forth.  

But — would it seem very parochial and British of me to admit that at present, I'm less interested in my vision of Europe, than I am exercised by the more formal question of what it takes to have a decent public debate?

This is not primarily for me an argument that being a democrat is far more important than being a European. No, my feelings about this have only really emerged over recent months, as Britain put itself through paedophile scares, fuel protests, Big Brother, Asylum vouchers and foot and mouth disease. When, during the fuel protests, Jonathon Freedland warned New Labour of the danger of misreading "the new mood" whose common thread he defined as "the belief that the system no longer responds to people's needs" — I began to dream of a good C4E debate, one beyond "sound and fury", in which there was a chance to practice reconciling conflicts, putting ourselves in other people's positions, and generally attempting  what has been called a "politics of recognition"...

I say this, not because I take an entirely negative view of "the new mood". In his 1997 paper, The People, the Elites and the Populist Challenge — Yves Meny, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre, came up with a neat and damning definition of the "populism"  which he saw as threatening an admittedly elusive European democracy. It "pits the people against the elites, the community against the outsiders or foreigners, individuals against groups and the bureaucracy, those with 'common sense' against the intellectuals or ideologues". To be sure, in recent months we have had plenty of evidence of this ominous phenomenon, alongside the general lack of confidence in politicians and parties which Euro-watchers across the Continent bemoan.

But maybe his approach overlooks positive energies for change. A chance remark, for example, on the way in which it has been left to minority groups and social movements to bring "important issues such as gender, the environment, and migration" onto Europe's agenda — remains precisely that, a passing observation. Or could it be that Heidi Hautala is right after all, when she hints that the EU's silent fear is of "us"?

Because there are other strands to this populist common thread: amongst them, a deep longing on the part of many for the chance to bring peer approval, social recognition, excitement and just plain meaning and purpose into one's life — by flexing one's own muscles. It may be quite simple. If we don't want the "new mood" in an enlarging Europe to sour and issue in vicarious thrills of the anti-social kind, then people must be offered, as Juliet Lodge suggests, "real democratic debate geared to conflict resolution and open participation... inclusion not exclusion; letting the people see the future and showing how common concerns can, where appropriate, be tackled..."

Two-way citizens' debate

From a British perspective at least, so few opportunities exist for basic exercises in democracy that I sometimes wonder how the old democracies of Europe have the gall to call the new ones to account. And there will be new challenges. As Ian Christie points out, the EU has much to learn on environmental policy from the applicant states, given the relative absence of intensive farming and the survival of many wildlands and wildlife in central and eastern Europe. Wouldn't it be better to engage now in a genuine, two-way, citizens' debate?

Which brings me to my last point. Ian Christie's sustaining vision for Europe is more or less addressed to the European Commission. It certainly emphasises the need for a Sustainable Development Strategy, "to be led from the top". Yet on nearly every page, you will discover a new requirement for popular participation and negotiation, if the Strategy is to work : "measures to improve the quality of public argument on the big choices for the new century"; "Europe's character as a learning network";"reforms to promote participatory, deliberative forms of direct democracy"; the need for "two-way processes, so that citizens as well as decision-makers are exposed to home truths and risk analyses in ways that conventional party politics avoids"; "co-ordinated strategies between sectors at all levels from the local to the global".

If these are the skills vital for Europe's future, need we wait upon the Commission, upon event, or even upon democracy? Perhaps C4E, which was launched February this year, can make a start. Perhaps, as Byron might have concluded, when he embarked on his last journey to Greece, fully aware of the struggling factions and greedy pseudo-patriots which awaited him, but carrying in his baggage two helmets especially made in Italy in the Homeric style, and engraved with the family motto Crede Biron  — we should tell ourselves that it is possible for citizens to start anywhere, start small and start now.

 

Rosemary Bechler is co-founder of Citizens for Europe and member of the New Politics Network, both c/o 6 Cynthia Street, London N1 9JF.

 

[home] [focus] [archive]