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Dr Dan Boucher: The Need for a Fuller and Richer Conception of Politics in the EU Referendum Debate

Guest Blogger, 21 June 2016

Dr Dan Boucher 

I often hear people of my parent’s generation say words to the effect: ‘We voted to join a Common Market for trade. We never voted for a political entity, a European Union.’ At the same time it is not uncommon to hear my contemporaries concur in the sense of saying that while they are up for economic dimensions of the project, they have profound misgivings about the politics of it.

In this context I had hoped that the 2016 referendum arguments for EU membership would be informed by a much more sophisticated political case for Britain’s part in the European project than has been heard to date in order to address these misgivings. Instead of confronting this presenting concern head on, however, the ‘remain arguments’ have instead been almost entirely on the economic benefits of staying and the economic costs of leaving. I find this troubling.

The fact is that the European Union does have a significant political and legal dimension which means that membership, or lack of membership, will impact on the nature of the society in which we live as well as on our economy. In a not insignificant number of areas rather than modelling economic intergovernmental co-operation, the EU regularly acts like a state in its own right. For example:

  • When the Council of Ministers votes by qualified majority, legislative decisions are made for all the Member States, including those in the minority who are overruled.
  • Not that all British MEPs vote the same way but constitutionally the point is clear, Britain’s 73 votes in the European Parliament are very easily overruled by the 678 other votes.
  • EU law has precedence over the laws of all Member States, including the laws of the UK, such that if there is ever a conflict European law has supremacy.
  • Unlike international law which relates to states, EU law relates directly to all citizens.

The decision about whether to remain or leave, therefore, asks us to engage not only with economic policy but also with questions about the rule of law, justice, the common good and the kind of civil society we want to enjoy. Mindful of this, if we are to maintain our long cherished democratic traditions, a compelling argument to remain must make the case for Britain’s part in a European political identity – a European public square serviced by a European people or ‘demos.’

The presence of a ‘demos’ (a civic and not an ethnic category) that correlates to a public square is a vital prerequisite of strong and stable democracy, providing citizens with the sense of a stake in, and connection to, their polity from which they can discharge their civic responsibilities of scrutinising and holding both executive and legislature to account. If you are part of a healthy ‘demos’ and find yourself in the minority, while you might feel frustrated, this does not have the effect of fracturing your connection with your political system. Indeed, your sense of identity and place might make you fight even harder to try and change things for your country in the future. If, however, you have something ‘done to you’ by a political identity in which you have no felt stake, you will simply feel alienated – a dislocated actor in a broken politics. In the event that there are many others like you, the polity in question will be both impoverished and enfeebled.

Prof J. H. H. Weiler put it rather well, using the example of Denmark and Germany. He observed that a union between Denmark and Germany would be unacceptable to a Dane even if he or she were promised a vote and representation in the Bundestag. ‘Their screams of grief will be shrill not simply because they will be condemned, as Danes, to permanent minorityship (that may be true for the German Greens too), but because the way nationality, in this way of thinking, enmeshes with democracy is that even majority rule is only legitimate within a Demos, when Danes rule Danes’.  Democracy does not just require a vote. It requires a vote and the presence of a credible ‘demos.’

The difficulty that we face in this referendum is that while in many areas the EU acts like a state, as if there is a European demos and a European public square, for very many people in the UK there currently is no felt sense of being part of a European people. Moreover, in the unusual context where the EU has authority to make legislative decisions in some areas, alongside UK and other Member States which have authority to make decisions in other areas, there must be a concern that if people do not feel any sense of being part of the demos accompanying the EU, the consequential experience of ‘having things done to them’ will have negative implications for their approach to politics generally, including in relation to their home nation.

It seems very clear that going forward legislative decision-making in the European public square will regularly result in the United Kingdom being overruled, either by qualified majority in the Council, or by the very considerable majority of non-British MEPs in the Parliament. EU law, moreover, will continue to have supremacy over British laws. In these moments Britain is effectively governed by a higher European polity and in this context, in order to facilitate proper civic engagement and prevent a dangerous sense of alienation which could spread to infect our politics at home with rising voter apathy and disengagement, there is an urgent need to make a compelling, practical case for Britain’s part in the European demos.

I have the greatest respect for those who have advanced proposals to create a European demos, but the truth is that while their vision has theoretical possibility, it has not yet found practical expression. As far as I can see, the majority of British people, including many of those persuaded to back remain for economic reasons, feel little or no connection with a European demos. After 43 years of one not emerging within the UK, I find it very hard to believe that this will change. I am concerned about some of the economic implications of leaving the EU but have to say that I am even more concerned about the political implications of not doing so. Given the huge importance of having a democratic form of government that works – not least for the long term health of our economy which depends on political stability – I have come to the conclusion that, in the absence of any real sense of a European demos in Britain, remaining would prove deeply problematic in the long term.

Dr Dan Boucher has a PhD in international relations and stood as a Welsh Conservative candidate in the 2014 European Elections. He works in public affairs and lives in Swansea. He tweets at @DansBoucher.

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