Why British governments are traditionally in favour of enlargement? How to explain widespread euroscepticism in the UK? And what about the credibility of the Hungarian presidency? Maurice Fraser, a senior fellow in European Politics at the London School of Economics, shares with us his opinion.
I'd first like to talk about the EU's enlargement perspectives. Serbia has been granted candidate status on the 25 of October and Croatia is well advanced in the negotiation process. How would you say does the British government view the process of enlargement to the Balkans? More generally, is there unanimity amongst the British political class on the necessity and the benefits to expect from enlargement?
It remains the case that Britain is one of the strongest enthusiasts of enlargement. British motives for supporting enlargement are scrutinized, commented on, but it’s important to understand that its commitment to enlargement is unchanged. Why did Britain develop such a commitment to enlargement? For a number of reasons: in the case of the Balkans, the geopolitical arguments for entrenching stability, giving hope and encouragement to the reformers play a significant role. These geopolitical arguments are ultimately self-interested arguments as well: it is vital for the EU that, on its south-eastern doorstep, a sense of optimism develops and a sense that structural problems are being tackled takes hold – economy, society, crime, governance… With the enlargement process, the Balkans will become more prosperous, more stable and from a self-interested point of view that matters very much. I think that this analysis, even in the countries that are less enthusiastic about enlargement, is very much accepted: we have a shared history and we share a subcontinent. A sense of solidarity has emerged, based on a shared past and, of course, geopolitical arguments.
As a result, the British government continues to promote enlargement at a time when it gets harder to find other countries which share its views: the accession of twelve countries in 2004 and 2007 was a big chunk to bite off in one go. Public opinion was managed satisfactorily but a sense of unease about social changes in Europe and a fear of potential threats to the European identity appeared within the EU. So, putting the case for bringing more people into our societies becomes harder to defend. The last two years of economic shock, rising unemployment, continued concerns about identity, wider fears of globalization also contribute to the lack of enthusiasm for further enlargements. The new British government now feels that it has a strong responsibility to keep the potential of enlargement alive because it could very well fade. Enlargement seems too complicated, too exhausting, not very popular and it is very easy for these fatalistic arguments to take hold. And I think that is why the British foreign secretary William Hague and the new Prime Minister David Cameron have put very forthrightly the case for enlargement and they will probably continue to do so in the future.
The other reason why British governments of right and left have traditionally supported enlargement – and for me this is not well understood by our partners – is because Britain does have quite a romantic idea of Europe, of a wider Europe. It is not a tightly integrated Europe, as the British perhaps do not very well understand the need for institutions to further the European project. Indeed, Britain remains rather suspicious of the ambitions of some of the central institutions, though the broadly liberalising role of the European Commission is better understood than it used to be. At a more abstract level however it is important to understand that Britain is attached to a certain romantic idea of Europe, nourished by the feeling that the European family must be reunited after having been artificially forced apart by communism. This idea of a family that was brutally and arbitrarily split by communism creates the historical and moral imperative to reunite European peoples. The sense that we are all Europeans, at least at the philosophical and romantic levels, is keenly felt by British elites and government but is not understood by Britain’s partners.
The latter generally believe that Britain always puts the case for enlargement because it wants to widen Europe rather than deepening it, or because it only sees the EU as an economic free trade zone. This argument does not hold water, though: British governments are well aware that historically, every enlargement has been accompanied by further institutional deepening. The British are not living in some fantasy world whereby they imagine that enlargement can proceed without any strengthening European institutions. That is just a matter of historical record which has been observed and well understood in London and for that reason, I don’t accept the idea that Britain promotes enlargement to prevent further deepening of European integration.
If the EU decision-making process seems to have not been hindered by the last two enlargements, does it not hinder political cooperation at the level of the EU? If a consensus can still be reached, wont it necessarily be less far reaching with 27 Member-States that with 15?
This begs the question: is there an end state to the European Union, which a small number of countries, actively frustrated by others, would like to pursue? I think that is highly contentious. Was it ever the case? It was never the case that France had the same idea of European integration than the Benelux, Germany and Italy from 1957. This idea of a 'hard core' Europe at times of course became fashionable again, particularly in the 1990's. But if one looks at the history of the European Union, there have been much more varied ideas about the ideal shape of the European construction.
The second point is, this objection ignores the Europeanisation which takes place once countries join the EU. It was said that some countries from Central and Eastern European countries were too Atlanticist, and might find it hard to go along with the attempts at building a common foreign policy. This has not been the case in practice and only very occasionally does an issue come up. The Europeanisation of norms and values is proceeding successfully.
Of course it is important that this process of Europeanisation should not be forced. Nobody in the EU has suggested that pressure should be brought on the 5 countries that were not prepared to recognise Kosovo. That would be counterproductive. European consensus should be built brick by brick, through practice, through socialisation, through these forces that have historically operated as powerful forces of integration. This should not involve forcing the pace unnecessarily or being coercive, because that risks provoking a counter-reaction against the EU that would be very damaging to the European project.
The British population is known to be very eurosceptic. Do you believe that the population shares the pragmatic consensus that exists amongst the political class concerning the benefits of membership in some way or another?
EU enlargement is a topic that is tied to external affairs and foreign policy. We know that public opinion across all democracies is not very interested in foreign affairs issues which obviously do not touch directly upon questions related to people’s everyday life, in the way education, social security, or pensions do. The British public is no different from public opinion across Europe – in other words it is largely indifferent. Nevertheless the feeling that we have our own problems to sort out before we import or risk importing other peoples’ problems is widespread. Because we are facing difficult challenges and difficult decisions, such as the need to reduce our public spending, the traditional liberal belief that the cake would go on growing through the market and that therefore, there will always be enough for everybody, that view is gradually disappearing. I think that optimism and faith in continued prosperity is now hard to find among the British public and in other European publics for that matter. There is now a widely held view that hard choices need to be made and that there will be losers.
Therefore, people start believing that resources that remain available should be shared with people who are already members of our society rather than having to be shared with large numbers of new arrivals. It is the case for public services and for our health system especially. Indeed, we don’t have instant treatment in our health service: there are waiting lists, although shorter than they used to be. People who arrive from other countries, especially outside the EU, and show up at a hospital in the UK obviously have a right to be treated by our health service. There is however a limit to the capacity of our health service to go on providing – particularly in difficult times like these – for an ever increasing number of patients. It is the same for our education system and other community services. This “limit” is more keenly felt by the public nowadays, and the public is made up of taxpayers.
How then do you mobilize any kind of support, or even acquiescence to further enlargement? I think most of the time (and this in a way is the salvation of politicians who are supportive of enlargement), people are not particularly focused on external relations and foreign affairs, let alone the very tortuous and protracted process of accession negotiations in Brussels. The Council of Ministers has asked the Commission to prepare an opinion on Serbia’s membership; this is a significant country of South-Eastern Europe which, in 8 to 10 years from now, may join the EU. However, many in Britain count on the “Out of sight, out of mind”, “over there in Brussels” way of thinking. People would definitely mobilize if a policy decision by the government or by the Council of Ministers seemed to be damaging to the public interests, such as a new tax, EU-wide for example. Enlargement however is a more intangible and long-term process: it doesn’t lend itself to political mobilization unless there is a referendum. Referenda, such as the ones that were organized for the Lisbon Treaty, are also the opportunity to express a wider sense of concerns. They represent that existential moment when vague concerns about enlargement can be crystallized into particular instances of protest. This is a challenge that all countries facing a referendum well know about.
Britain will have to go through this process in the future: referenda will be held whenever there is a treaty change that substantially affects British sovereignty. The most imminent case is the treaty of accession that will have to be ratified when Croatia is ready to enter the EU in 2012, possibly 2013. The British government says that there is no reason why this should frustrate Croatia's membership ambitions. As the treaty of accession is not expected to imply any further sharing of sovereignty, no referendum will be organized and the British people will not have to express themselves about the desirability of one country joining the EU. So Britain will fight very hard to ensure that no further transfers of sovereignty will be included in the treaty. The last thing Britain would want would be to be accused of hypocrisy, i.e. that the country which had always supported EU enlargement would now be blocking it. I don’t think it will come to that. But, have politicians in Britain been, overall, clever or efficient in putting the case for enlargement to the British public as opposed to other governments in Brussels? I wouldn’t say so really. The case could have been defended more energetically: Britain does think that countries which are politically and economically well-off do bring something to the party. They adopt a very classical, liberal way of looking at economics and a country like Britain should ensure that its population understands its the care for the continued growth and enlargement of the Single Market. That’s not where we’re at, and maybe that’s not realistic in terms of politics. Nowadays enlargement needs all the friends it can get and we could raise our game a bit in explaining its benefits.
Finally, although Euroscepticism is widespread in Britain, it is important to understand that it is a shallow phenomenon: it runs wide, but not very deep. I believe there is quite a lot of truth in national stereotypes, and I think the British are notably pragmatic, in fact they are famous for their pragmatism, and even if the British public is not very enthusiastic about the European Union, the proportion of the British public for whom this is a key measure, a key political test, is very small, 5% at most of the population. And we know, from many opinion polls, and it is as true of conservative voters as it is of other voters, that on a list of 12 policy areas that people are asked to rank in order of priority, Europe always comes 12th out of 12. If this were a country that thought so strongly and burningly about a threat to our national identity coming from the European Union, it would not be n° 12 on this list of priorities. So it is important to understand that the purs et durs eurosceptics are a small minority of the population.
The question of the Roma minority has been quite central to European debate this summer. Do you believe it is the role of the European Union to tackle this issue and if yes, in what way? Do you know what the opinion of the British government is on this question?
The British government has been very happy not to be drawn on this issue, which mainly affects other EU members. If there were any reactions they were very sotto voce and we therefore have to draw certain assumptions ourselves. These assumptions would probably hold true however for most EU governments. The starting point is that the European Union is a Union of law, or it is nothing. Amongst other things there are laws relating to the free movement of EU citizens, which entails them being able to move unimpeded, and the right to live, settle and work in other EU countries. Britain has always been a passionate supporter and believer in the rule of law, and while it has had arguments about what the scope of EU law should be, here we do sign up to things, EU law is scrupulously observed. In fact it was Britain which, during the negotiations on the Maastricht treaty, proposed the idea that the ECJ should be able to fine countries for non-compliance as an ultimate sanction. So as a starting point, Britain has a strong presumption that where there is EU law, EU law should be respected.
Equally, any British government is sensitive to the concerns of people about crime, erosion of their identity, particularly in communities which have seen a rapid change in social composition in recent years. Clearly these concerns are in broad terms a problematic issue which must be tackled at the national level, as migration, settlement, employment and social integration, are still the competence of nation states. Despite these facts, at the end of the day EU law must be respected. Equally, the fundamental European principle, and indeed Western principle, of individual, not collective, culpability must be respected. There is no doubt that there are indeed many instances within Roma communities of lawlessness, but that is not saying the same as tarring with one brush the whole community. Where law has been broken, those who are responsible must be sought out and must be punished, but that is based on the principle of individual responsibility.
I think the French fully understand this last point. I think that somewhere within the bureaucracy there was a moment d'égarement which, once it was exposed to the full light of day, the French government moved pretty swiftly to address. And this is not least because of the response of many other European countries and particularly of the European Commission which is charged with upholding the law.
The Roma issue is a European problem, morally, philosophically, existentially, and I think all policy makers need to think about better ways of addressing the integration of this minority. Efforts should be redoubled because they are on our continent, they are part of our societies and we owe it to them not just to tolerate their presence, but also to help them to play a fuller part in society. But the level at which this should principally be managed is the level of the nation state. We are still a European Union of nation-states, and I think that is how most people want it to be. I do not think it should be beyond us to try to address these problems together, but this should be by sharing experience, good practice, encouragement or indeed at times, dissuasion. This remains essential because the Roma issue is a common problem, which concerns just about every country in Europe.
Finally, I'd like us to talk about the Hungarian presidency of the EU starting in January. How equipped do you think the country is to take on this responsibility? Does the Hungarian government's inability to tackle racial violence against the Roma population, and more generally, the growing influence of right-wing radicalism, affect in any way its credibility in taking on the EU Presidency?
I think that Hungary is not disqualified but perfectly equipped to deliver an effective presidency. It has been a member for quite a few years and its civil service is professional and well trained for the task. Where it needs to take advice, I gather it has been very serious in seeking it out.
Concerning issues of right-wing extremism and racial violence in Hungary, I don't think there can be a judgement. Hungary is a democracy, and sometimes democracies throw up outcomes which are not particularly attractive. It is true that a far-right, nationalist, authoritarian, populist party has achieved a not insignificant share of the popular vote. The extent to which it is complicit with some of the more extreme and violent things happening in Hungary is not clear; probably there is an overlap at the edges. I think the Hungarian government is aware of this overlap and is concerned about it, and I think it is something which all Europeans need to be vigilant about.
However, there are forces of the kind in many other European countries, and we have to remember that this is not just a Central and Eastern European phenomenon. The problem is, that if you look closely into every European political system, no country will come out completely spotless from the examination. Of course we have to be vigilant, these forces have to be challenged and confronted so they don't find a wider audience in the population. But concrete action cannot come from the European Union or its members.
When Jörg Haider's freedom party got a good share of the vote and entered into the Austrian government, some politicians were talking about suspending Austria from the EU. Not only is this undemocratic, but it does risk bringing about a populist, nationalist backlash of exactly the kind we desperately need to avoid in Europe. Europe's soft power within Europe should act by example, by upholding the values which Europeans hold dear. This also means using education, particularly for those who are more disadvantaged and who may be more susceptible to these kinds of populist messages.
Maurice Fraser is a senior fellow in European Politics at the London School of Economics. He is the programme director of the LSE-SciencesPo MScDouble Degree in European Studies and the Director of the European Public Lecture Series. Between 1989 and 1995, he was Special Adviser to UK Foreign Secretaries Douglas Hurd, John Major and Sir Geoffrey Howe.
To go further
On Nouvelle Europe website
- Simon Hix : British Tories, Brussels, and a Bill (1rst part)
- Simon Hix : Referendums in a two-speed Europe (2d part)
- A new British attitude towards Europe?
- The EU bill: the victory of euroscepticism in British politics?
Source photo : London School of Economics