Airstrip One
by Christopher Montgomery

April 29, 2002


What do Europeans want? And would they like it if they got it? Do they sometimes say no when they mean yes, fake pleasure at things that really can't be desperately good for them, and maybe even have a pronounced tendency not actually to know what it is the silly moos want? Truth to tell, I haven't a clue what Europeans want, but in this I must admit that I'm not as other Eurosceptics are. For central to Sceptic discourse is complete certainty as to what continentals want, and (who'd have guessed?) it's never very nice.

What, specifically, they are said to want is united only by its generalised ickiness, but mixed in you'll usually find at least some of the following: a desire to abolish sovereign nation states; an intention, where applicable, to replace the common law with the tyrannical Napoleonic Code; to foist socialism on vigorous capitalists; to suppress representative democracy in favour bureaucratic elitism; to tax the bejeezus out of us; to engage in cultural homogenisation; and, well, to be just a little bit crooked in next to everything they get up to. It's not pointed out anywhere near as often as it might be, but most of them are Roman Catholics too, but that's by the by.

Now the charges per se don't particularly matter. What's interesting is the way in which the indictment is framed. There are three basic models on offer. First of all, we have the 'elitist conspiracy' version. Before I go on, though, I should point out that by 'we', and indeed, by Eurosceptic, I mean right wing British opponents of the European Union – not, of course, that most of this crowd are bold enough publicly to favour leaving the EU, but that's another matter – rather than the EU's continental opponents, most of whom have either authentically disgusting or internally coherent arguments, and are therefore beyond our interest at the moment. Anyway, the elitist conspiracy: the alleged conspirators are the men, faceless or otherwise, in Brussels, and it may, if you're feeling patriotic, include some of our own. Basically, 'the EU wants to do one/some/all of the horrible things from the preceding paragraph, but they won't admit to this in public' is the spiel.

The second model of Eurosceptic critique runs as follows: 'well we all know what Brussels, and their British lapdogs, want: just look at my Eurosceptic factsheet for all the details! And isn't it just typical that they'll pursue these anti-democratic policies in their evil fascistoid way, without an ounce of popular support?' Which leads us on to the third, and most particularist, or nationalist, variant: 'they [the Commission, or whoever] may have support amongst the cheese-eating surrender monkeys©, no surprise there – but they've no support here in Britain!' Cue national anthem, and retire.

The problem with devastating argument number three is that, if you it take it very seriously, it's jolly difficult to have sympathy for the wretched British, since all it can amount to is the following: we're having one put over us, some of us spend our lives telling everyone else in Britain, you're having one put over you, you, in turn, tell every opinion pollster who asks you that, yes, you are having one put over you and you don't much like it, but then what do you do? Uh, you go on voting for the people self-evidently shafting you. Inexplicable, unless, obviously, you don't much care about this issue one way or the other – or even mildly like it, but that's more Mencken than Hoppe territory, and can wait till another day. What's undeniable, though, is that if a sovereign people show no inclination to react to appeals made to them qua their sovereignty, well, they've silently spoken, and it's not an answer from which British souveraintistes can take much comfort.

One minor problem with the first two arguments is that they cancel each other out – either it's a conspiracy which, um, we all know about, or, we all ought to get ants in ours pants about what these yahoos are getting up to coz they keep telling us what they're up to – but more important is that the fact that both analyses rest upon what the other lot are up to. What the sinister, secretive, in full public view Eurocrats, together with their catspaws in the Council of Ministers, are up to is taken for granted. We know what they're up to – that's surely beyond all doubt.

A more serious problem is this: could these charges described above really be the aims of any systematic, well-organised group, let alone of some fearsome nation-abolishing agency? The latter, I think, can be dispensed with in an instant, since after all, if this really existed (e.g. in the form of the European Commission), then surely it would have abolished those pesky members' states ages ago. Moving on from conspiracies, both public and private, do these alleged goals roughly represent the sum of European opinion, or at least of those men in dominant political positions in each individual country, and throughout the EU as a whole? No, they do not.

Let's try and explain this, using Britain as an example, in an effort to see why the habit of attributing a common weltanschaung to the Europeans is so wrong-headed. The easiest way into this, in Tory circles, is to notice the way the hackles rise when, oh, our American friends make the mistake of casually referring to 'Europeans' (as in, 'why are European politicians all anti-semitic foes of Israel?' etc.) and including us. That never pleases. However, that's merely the symptom. The causal error itself is holding that you know what a country or a people or a class knows or thinks or wants. A British conservative would easily mouth some statement alluding to what 'Europeans think', and qualify it, in prose, or in response to questioning, to some more defensible position along the lines of 'this is what those currently in power over the rest of that group think/want/do'. Yet there is no escaping the awareness that Sceptics have diagnosed goals for their opponents and that they see them, relentlessly, dishonestly or incoherently pursuing those goals. But what are Britain's goals? What are her aims? Does she have a weltanschaung too? Of course not, that's what other people do.

With ourselves we know that it is, at best, impossible meaningfully to attribute collective opinions or shared goals to an entire, multi-faceted society. Everything is too complex, too random, too obscure to say, 'that is the British position on Europe'. Which British position? supported by whom? and why? and for how long? And this doesn't even touch upon the question of whether the British position on Europe – whatever it is held to be – is 'right' or 'successful'. This may seem like a fairly basic seminar in linguistics, but the point is a simple one: we can't, in all fairness, accuse others of things while at the same time thinking it impossible that we could be guilty of the same thing ourselves. In other words, it is patently obvious that there is not a unitary 'British' position on Europe, but rather a multiplicity of competing and interacting tendencies. Tory Eurosceptics should acknowledge that not only is there no such thing as the 'European agenda', but more importantly, to posit one is fundamentally to weaken our defence of our own case.

In practical terms, let's just briefly think this through. If the entire (or momentarily dominant faction in the) European body-politic truly did want to build a federal superstate, and yet still hadn't managed to do so, you'd have to wonder what was wrong with these people. What has stopped them? The Campaign for an Independent Britain (lovely people one and all, incidentally)? A natural disinclination to do things in the absence of a popular mandate? (Although . . . on the other side of the Channel, over the last half century, 'European unity', whatever that means, has usually been a very popular cause, but let's not go there.) And yet these people are supposed to be united, determined, and working to a ruthless, inflexible programme. But in truth, as you might expect me to argue, they don't advance any unified project because there is no such 'they'.

Sure, you can listen to or read vapourings from any number of politicians from EU countries, going back to the foundation of the EEC, making the case for things which are arguments for, or could so easily lead to, a federal superstate. Now, we're all grown-up enough to realise that when politicians have said these things, in a great many instances, it hasn't been with a view to their realisation on earth, here and now, world without end, but because the incanting of these phrases has suited some immediate political purpose. In the Council of ministers perhaps, or maybe in front of their domestic audience – the determinant factor for each and every European politician still being his or her home electorate and not some fictive European demos – a trick was being scored thereby. Substantial evidence in this direction is the fact that the superstate hasn't been achieved yet, despite, as previously mentioned, the evident lack of credible opposition.

That's not to say that the language in which politics, or European diplomacy, is conducted doesn't matter. Maurice Cowling, in Mill and Liberalism, observed that

Few politicians, except the greatest, are free to choose the slogans in which they speak: most have to be content with slogans that come to hand. To use slogans that happen to be current is not necessarily bad . . . Nor, so long as political objectives are achieved, do politicians need to recognise their slogans when they use them. To know that a slogan is being used, and use it as though it were something more, requires a fine combination of political instincts.

And although it's impressive (and the only way genuinely transformative doctrines take off) when a politician does do that slightly mad thing, and steps aside from the language all his peers use, this is more often a prelude to being ignored. What we should note is that the slogans are invariably only – to use a military metaphor – makes of gun, not, thanks to some immanent quality some may happen to possess, qualitatively different weapons. What's at stake, what's being fought over, is politics. Nothing more and nothing less.

This doesn't deny the existence of concrete aims, far from it – what it does do is set the context in which the many actors involved are likely to achieve their aggregate ends, and also, to provide us with the most useful intellectual tool by which we can perceive a snapshot of this perpetual process, necessarily artificial and self-defeating as that snapshot is.

To take a very real example of policy, and what – to bring it right down to earth – right wing Tories ought to think in relation to matters European, consider the chimera of the European superstate. Don't think about the failure to achieve it, but think what a lovely thing it would be if it came into existence. Now, before you whistle and shout, it went without saying there that it shouldn't involve the UK. This is something they should do. If we can get them to do it, that is. A Foreign Secretary who followed the course I'm about to quickly sketch out would more than likely shoot the Sceptic fox. That is to say, if a British Foreign Secretary went to Brussels and laid down actual-factual proposals showing how the individual EU member states could be abolished and superseded by a Federal European state, by far the most probable outcome is that his continental peers would have to stare down at their tasseled loafers and mumble something quiet about how they didn't really want that thing they had squealed in favour of for so long.

Let's end with a dose of fantasy. Let us imagine that Britain had a brilliant, and lucky, Foreign Secretary, who went off to Brussels and convinced the other EU states that they did want to set up a superstate, and this was how, and, by some fortuitous combination of events and personalities, this came to pass, and off the Europeans went and set up – without us – their federal leviathan. Disaster or deliverance? madness or miracle? tragedy or triumph? It's the best thing possible, in terms of British independence, that could conceivably happen.

There's a reason why the cleverer people in Foggy Bottom are, and always have been, in favour of a European superstate, for what's the most probable shape one will take? An armed Hitlerian monster? Hardly. It is more likely to be a flabby, docile, timid, easily led, illegitimate behemoth. Would such a thing prove a danger to Britain? No, not if we can resist the temptation, as we have not done with the far less intrusive EU/EEC, of acceding to it. A continental superstate would make explicit, in a way that the EU doesn't, what we would have to give up to be part of it. Moreover, for all its agreeable weaknesses, it, perversely, would provide us with a diplomatic counterweight to the force that has consistently pushed us into European political structures: US foreign policy.

What we need is something to play off against the US that doesn't provide the risk of reducing us to the same client status as we have allowed America to. In so doing, we will gain the immense, nay, crucial domestic political advantage of removing from the backsliders, whether they slither towards Brussels or Washington, their excuse that, 'there is no alternative, not one better than our preferred compromise anyway'. The first goal of British foreign policy should now, as it were, be to summon into being the old world to redress the balance against the new.

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