Eurosceptics must be shown more respect

By Morgane Fert-Malka

How to promote a pro-EU narrative that reaches not only those who believe in the European project but also those who need convincing? The main anti-EU narratives can be challenged on their own ground – but too often they are simply dismissed as irreceivable without being effectively criticised. The only way to promote the European project is to engage with Eurosceptics as worthy interlocutors and to address their concerns and criticisms, so as to bridge the paradigmatic gap and reach solutions together.

While the EU is currently undermined by very concrete structural problems – which need to be addressed to regain the citizens’ trust – its image also suffers from major misconceptions. The European project is losing ground not only because it objectively fares poorly, but also and perhaps to a greater degree because people understand it poorly. In fact, the EU is under attack both for its strengths and shortcomings. In order to devise a defensive and offensive PR strategy to promote the European project, one must first look at the main anti-EU narratives:

The functioning of EU institutions is undemocratic. The EU has stripped the peoples of the exercise of their sovereign rights and given the power to technocrats and bureaucrats.

The EU is just a collection of countries too different to get along, with different values and structural interests, be it in terms of economy, culture or security issues. There can be no common policy if national interests diverge so much.

The EU has failed to address the most pressing crises – exogenous ones like Crimea, terrorism and the migration crisis, and endogenous ones like the euro crisis – showing that when a threat looms, only states can and should make efficient use of their regalian powers.

These narratives can quite easily be challenged.

“The functioning of EU institutions is undemocratic”

The European Parliament is democratically elected by direct universal suffrage. The mere strength of eurosceptic parties within its ranks – much more than in national parliaments – proves that its composition is not the making of a pro-EU establishment. The European Council is composed of the heads of states of the member countries. Denying it – or the Concilium under the same logic – a democratic legitimacy would amount to denying the national leaderships and governments their democratic legitimacy. The European Commission epitomizes the ‘democratic deficit’ criticism, because they have important law-making powers although they are not directly elected. However, the President of the European Commission, as well as the Commissioners, are elected by the European Council and accountable to the European Parliament. The Court of Justice, Court of Auditors and European Central Bank are not subject to direct democratic control, but neither are their national equivalents, for reasons pertaining to the nature of their activities (see Leino 2000). Generally, the EU has become a critical platform for the daily involvement of civil society, to a much greater extent than was ever achieved in the member states. Critics point out that institutional complexity and a lack of publicity creates a democratic deficit. But complexity mostly results from the need to combine EU institutions with national institutional structures, which means that a truly supranational EU could be more simple and thus more accessible to public scrutiny. Finally, the democratic deficit caused by lack of public interest is not inherent to the EU project – it rather results from a failure by the media to cover EU politics with the same assiduity as national politics. Paradoxically, the current crisis of confidence is an opportunity for the public to be more involved in the future.

“There is no such thing as common EU interests”

National interest is an elusive notion. It is not an essential given but the contested result of a permanent debate within the national polity. There is no reason why a common EU interest should be more consensual than are the respective ‘national interests’. The problem results from the fact that provisional consensuses are reached for each issue at the national level and then brought to the EU level for a ‘second round’ of negotiation. If the debate about common EU interests started at the EU level, there would be no artificial divisions between national interests, only healthy contestation between the various actors and groups of interests, which would make the negotiation more likely to reach an optimal outcome. The very process would be socialising and would contribute to iron out national differences, placing the debate at the level of an EU-wide civil society rather than at the level of governments.

“The EU has failed to address the most pressing crises”

The EU has failed to address major crises precisely because of fossilised interests promoted by government on a ‘protectionist’ basis. Eurosceptics promoting this anti-EU narrative shoot themselves in the foot, because only a more supranational Union with more integrated tools could be able to face the aforementioned crises, which are global in nature. The lack of a common foreign policy means there was no common response to the annexation of Crimea; the lack of a common security policy and harmonised intelligence dooms any coordinated attempt at fighting terrorism; the refusal by Germany to tame its saving glut (in breach of EU rules which require states to meet each other halfway) has compounded the inability of Southern member states to solve their deficit; and so on. The logic underlying the European project is that a unified, integrated and democratic Europe – rid of its national protectionisms and transitional dysfunctionalities – will always be stronger than the strongest of its members, and its people will fare better than the population of one European country in isolation could ever fare. This is not speculation or wishful thinking – just the recognition that more is better than less, and that a coherent whole is worth more than the sum of its parts.

What to do with those bloody Eurosceptics?

An efficient PR strategy for the European project must clearly point out the inconsistencies of anti-EU narratives, but do so in a way that reaches people rather than staying in a closed circle and preach the converted. The difficulty is to establish a communication space that also includes – as speakers and listeners – those who disagree. Too often, though, pro-EU argumentations are undermined by their proponents’ habit of dismissing eurosceptic points of view as automatically and normatively wrong. Thus anti-EU narratives are pushed to the margins – notably the margins of the political spectrum labeled as ‘far right’ and ‘far left’ – denied moral legitimacy and thus not addressed. Eventually, the margins grow in importance and become the mainstream, at which point the weakness of this exclusive, elitist pro-EU communication strategy becomes critical.

Eurosceptics – and those who lean towards euroscepticism – must be shown more respect, and be engaged in a discussion about concrete interests rather than abstract values. We who truly believe in the European project must stop naively promoting it. We must recognise and reflect on the how and the why a whole segment of the EU’s population feel excluded from it. We must promote the achievements of the EU but be honest about its shortcomings. We must embrace the idea of radical reform. And we must ally with our adversaries so as to devise solutions which they won’t be able to disavow.

Reference: P. Leino (2001), “The European Central Bank and Legitimacy: Is the ECB a Modification of or an Exception to the Principle of Democracy?”,  Harvard Jean Monnet Working Paper 1/01, Cambridge, MA: Harvard Law School, accessible

The opinions expressed in this paper are the author’s own.

Photocredit: EU Breaking Point via pixabay (license)


  1. […] It all boils down to the definition of the ‘Other’. Any stance can be justified on the basis that the opposite stance is even worse. Possibly this is what the proponents of the Kantian/ European dream have failed to understand: that it does not suffice for their proposed values to be attractive in absolute terms, but that these values would have to prevail over competing ideas. Instead, such competing ideas were rejected as politically incorrect or taboo with no opportunity to disprove them. (See my previous piece ‘Eurosceptics must be shown more respect‘). […]

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