Battle in Print: What next for the EU?

Chris Bickerton, 22 September 2008

In a recent publication by the Financial Times, more than fifty leading European thinkers were asked to put forward their vision of the European Union in 2057. As always with these kinds of exercises, it told us little about what the EU will be like in 50 years time (who knows?) but a lot about the EU today.

The new pragmatism

Some contributions saw the EU’s future in foreign policy, others in more institutional reform. One theme which stood out was the need to avoid the ideal of a fully integrated federal Europe, and to emphasise instead the more humdrum truth of European integration – harmonisation of standards, opening up of markets, easier movement across national borders. This was the theme of Robert Cooper’s article, entitled ‘Europe bored, Europe vindicated’. Cooper, one of the EU’s leading civil servants - recommended the EU should ‘be boring’, ‘give up trying to be loved’, and ‘be more modest, forget the flag, abandon the anthem. Do amendments, not Constitutions’ (1).

A similar argument was made by Andrew Moracvsik, professor of politics at Princeton University in the United States. In ‘Beyond the grand illusion’, Moravcsik recommended that ‘in lieu of rhetorical appeals, Europe should promulgate concrete and functional policies – a pragmatic “Europe of results”’. Denying the need to ‘sex-up’ the EU in any way, Moracvsik claimed that: ‘Europe’s institutional achievements have a nobility of their own. They are of world-historical importance’. (2)

Not all believers of the EU agree with such pragmatism. A few still defend the federal ideal, others argue for a different kind of ‘European story’. But the defence of the EU as humdrum and technical has become a regular response to those who criticise the EU’s lack of democracy or its weak popular appeal. According to Anand Menon, ‘the EU does not fit our conceptual boxes, and hence appals our tidy political imaginations’ (3). If we were to stop attacking the EU for what it is not, implies Menon, we might finally appreciate it for what it is.

The EU is not ‘out there’

There are two problems with this ‘pragmatic turn’. The first is that it asserts a false distinction between the national and the European. Moravcsik coruscates British Marxist historian, Perry Anderson, for claiming that recent referendums in France and Holland in 2005 signalled a ‘popular repudiation of Europe’. He argued that most issues in these referendums were national and had very little to do with the EU (4). Much of what drives the pragmatic turn is the claim that the EU is only about legal harmonisation in various areas of public policy; it is not about reconstituting democratic politics at the European level, nor about building a European people.

This underestimates what the EU represents. It may not be a European ‘superstate’, but it does signal the triumph of bureaucracy over politics, of consensus over conflict. In this way, it is the extreme expression of fundamental changes that have occurred at the national level. As left-right ideological battles have given way to Third Way managerialism, so has the EU expanded into virtually all areas of national government policy. The EU cannot therefore be mechanically insulated from domestic politics.

Moracvsik himself has written at length on the manner in which national political elites have used European integration as a way of circumventing the role of the public in decision-making (5). As European nation states have moved towards a mode of politics that has stripped out the role of popular participation and deliberation – asserting the importance of non-majoritarian institutions like courts and independent commissions as instruments to constrain the actions of elected representatives – so the EU has expanded, in the form of a magnified version of this nationally-rooted trend.

The EU is not ‘out there’ in Brussels. Rigidly demarcating its actions from those of its member states thus serves only to obscure the important relationship between the EU and national politics.

Pragmatism is part of the problem, not the solution

The other problem is that fêting the humdrum, depoliticised nature of the EU ignores the turn taken by anti-EU sentiment. In France in 2005 the No campaign brought together a wide variety of different groups and interests. However, underpinning much of the No sentiment was a refusal to acquiesce blindly with what the political elite was recommending. As Slavoj Žižek put it, the positive content of the French No was ‘the choice of the choice itself’ (6). Under such circumstances, any defence of the EU as an institution isolated from the short-termism of politics appears wilfully beside the point. The problem has become just this lack of popular control over the EU’s decision-making process. The message from those who defend an “unlovable Union” is that the public should leave these boring matters up to the experts. Yet it is precisely this notion of politics as expertise which is being challenged.

In the more recent Irish referendum of June 2008, this same trend asserted itself even more forcefully. The largest proportion of those who voted No (22%) to the proposed Lisbon Treaty did so because they felt that they were not adequately informed (7). The problem the EU faces is not that it cannot live up to the exalted expectations of diehard federalists. Rather, domestic publics, when consulted, are unwilling to trust their elites and the ‘unlovable Union’ they are defending. Depoliticised managerial-style politics no longer has the appeal it once did in the post-political heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Which No?

Disenchantment with post-politics can, however, take many forms. Along with a concern about a lack of information, another unifying element of the No campaign in Ireland was a fear for Ireland’s interests in an EU dominated by big member states like France, the UK and Germany. Of those who voted no on 13 June, 12% did so in order to protect Irish identity within Europe, 6% were concerned about Ireland’s neutrality, 6% were afraid of losing an Irish European Commissioner and 3% were afraid that small states would be left worse off with the new Treaty. This nationalist concern gave the No campaign a coherence and resonance which it would otherwise have lacked. It also – crucially – transformed a political struggle between Ireland’s political elite and its own people into a struggle between the Irish state and the rest of the EU.

For the future of the EU, much will depend on how this new political opposition develops. The most we can say is that the defence of the EU as ‘unlovable’ is far from answering contemporary concerns. Disenchantment with the elitism of European politicians and institutions may lay the basis for a more positive reassertion of popular control over political decision-making at the national level. This would mean recognising that the problems of European integration are only magnifications of problems whose origins lie at home. In contrast, a fragmentation of the EU, and a growing division between pioneer member states and more reluctant laggards would only prop up the European nation states and let political elites hide behind national barriers as a way of evading more direct challenges to their authority.


Chris Bickerton is Departmental Lecturer in International Relations, at the University of Oxford. His research interests include the European Union’s international role, its enlargement into Eastern and Southern Europe, and its internal problems of legitimacy and democracy. He is co-convenor of Sovereignty and its Discontents (SAID).


1)Cooper, R, in Fraser M. (ed.) 2007. European Union, the next fifty years: fifty+ top thinkers set out their ideas for Europe. London: Financial Times Business, p163.
2)Moravcsik, A, in ibid, p30.
3)Menon, A, 2008. Europe: The State of the Union. London: Atlantic Books. p251.
4) Moravcsik, A, 2007. ‘Marxist populism’, Prospect Magazine, Issue 141, December.
5) Moracvsik, A, 2003. The Choice for Europe: social purpose and state power from Messina to Maastricht, London: Routledge.
6) Zizek, S, ‘Against the populist temptation’,
7) Flash Eurobarometer 245, ‘Post-Referendum Survey in Ireland: Preliminary Results’, 18 June 2008.

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