With a day until the polls open, James Bartholomeusz addresses a letter to Eurosceptics, urging them to vote in favour of the European project.
Dear fellow Europeans,
I am writing this in the form of a letter because I want to address it to all of you – not to political officials, not to media representatives, not to academics, but to you all as citizens and voters of the European Union.
There are a plethora of valid reasons why you might be sceptical of the European project. You might feel as though you and your fellow citizens have lost democratic control of your own nations; that now, more than ever before, your government is at the mercy of global markets and super-state institutions over which ordinary voters have minimal control. You might begrudge how your taxes, although still a comparatively small amount of your treasury’s overall budget, form the pillars of unaccountable bureaucracies such as the European Commission. It might anger you that distant and heavy-handed laws passed down from Brussels have come to affect your society in unintended ways; for example, health and safety regulations designed to protect workers which actually prevent schools from taking students on trips, or food-standard specifications which mean vast quantities of good produce are discarded as waste. All I can say is that I think you are right – I share these grievances, as do many who ultimately come down on the side of European integration.
But nevertheless, I believe you are entitled to ask why these people, the fellow citizens of yours who share your anger, maintain their support for something as apparently unattractive as the European project.
Many others have and will make the case for Europe on the basis of specific policies that have done a great deal in supporting and developing member-states. In addition to this, however, I would ask you to take a broader look at your history. The conflicts of Europe over the last two millennia have ripped apart both our continent and the entire world, becoming increasingly destructive as valuable technological development has also driven newer and newer methods of inflicting suffering. The culmination was two ruinous world wars, out of which the European Union was gradually born as a means of international cooperation after generations of confrontation. If you are in western Europe, I would ask you to reflect on the unprecedented half-century of peace which remains unbroken, even now without the need to provide a united front against the Second World. If you are in the east, your memories of authoritarian repression are likely to be fresher still, and I would like you to ask yourselves whether, despite the manifold problems of Europe as it stands, you feel your children are growing up in a better or worse place than they would have done twenty-five years ago.
I would also ask you to remember some of the key benefits you enjoy today as a citizen of an EU member-state. You have the freedom to work, travel and study anywhere you wish within the Union, for family and friends to cross borders and meet one another as if they were residents of the same country. You possess a set of cast-iron guarantees under European human rights legislation, legislation which has particularly worked in the service of the weak and disadvantaged. Whether you are rich or poor, you have access to the advantages, so rarely felt on the nation-state level, of a common market for business innovation combined with strong support for working people. And, of course, you have the vibrant, diverse culture of Europe waiting on your doorstep, so easily accessible with your common passport.
There are many more things you enjoy besides these, which you may find you only miss once you realise they have gone.
There are other things I believe you should be considering as well: amongst them, I would ask you to take a fresh look at the company you keep. Among today’s Eurosceptics there are a small minority – and yet a minority too substantial to be ignored – of racists, fascists, neo-Nazis and even paramilitary shock troopers, who are quite candid about their political affiliations. France’s Front national encourages anti-Semitism; Greece’s Golden Dawn launches violent attacks on immigrants and trade unionists (many of them also opposed to the European project); Britain’s UKIP refers to sub-Saharan Africa as “bongo-bongo land” and claims it is proud of having the support of fascist voters. These groups have taken to mounting their projects in the name of defending ‘European society’ from external threats, but I would ask you – the majority who are undoubtedly disgusted with these acts – what embodies the best of European society? A continued attempt at international democracy, with human rights legislation at its core, that has informed an agenda of socio-economic prosperity across the continent? Or xenophobic, populist fear-mongering which remains unapologetic for past crimes, both colonial and totalitarian, which rightly have become the shame of Europeans everywhere?
There are, of course, those of you who have no sympathy whatsoever for the far-Right, but nevertheless believe that attempts to work within the existing system have ultimately failed. You think that the European project might once have been a good idea, but that it has led the nation-states of this continent down a cul-de-sac from which we must now retreat.
My answer to you again is that I understand your grievances, but the only productive way we can move is forward, not back. Parliaments are great things, but they are not magical: they do not spring into existence fully-formed, like Athena, from the will of the people. They are more like vessels: often lovingly crafted, but useless until filled with the proper democratic mandate. And through disuse, they become clogged and ineffective, until eventually discarded because they have been left to rot. The European Parliament is no different. It remains the only semi-democratic institution of the EU, but it has the potential to become the greatest legislature that history has yet seen. This evolution will only come about through public engagement, not abstinence – the Parliament must be invigorated with the general will of ordinary Europeans.
This is why I urge you all to vote, even if, like myself, you find yourself deeply discontented with the system as it currently stands. Only if European deputies can claim a proper democratic mandate, can claim to represent the will of their citizens, will the Parliament be strengthened against the unelected bureaucracy. And only a strong Parliament will be able to create a more just, accountable Europe.
Vote Right, vote Left, vote centre; vote religious, vote secular; even vote environmentalist or climate-sceptic, but above all vote European. Vote for the European democracy that you can just about glimpse coming over the horizon towards you.
Yours, in fellow citizenship,
Project for Democratic Union