With the talk of progressive coalitions in the air, what could be a more appropriate tune to hum than Beethoven’s setting of the Ode to Joy?
Deine Zauber binden wieder, was die Mode streng geteilt
Your charms will reunite those whom harsh habit has long divided.
Doubly so because that tune is the European Anthem, and the parties’ attitudes to Europe are in the spotlight for the foreign-policy themed leaders’ debate tomorrow.
The starting point for any discussion of European policy in the UK is the overwhelming ignorance of most of the UK media and public. The willingness of the UK media to swallow pressure group spin was well-summarised by David Rennie (the Economist‘s Brussels Correspondent) in a blog post criticising eurosceptic group Open Europe.
“Open Europe feeds on three big facts about the average London based journalist. They are very, very lazy, so love being spoon-fed stories. They are pack animals: once the EU has become a target for vitriolic abuse in one paper, all the others follow, because it winds readers up into a nice frenzy and there is no danger of anyone from the EU suing them. The EU also alarms journalists in London […], because they do not understand it and it makes their brains hurt to try”.
The British public, more than the media, acknowledge their ignorance. In the Eurobarometer survey, 60% of Britons say they don’t understand the EU – the highest percentage in Europe – and 75% think that their fellow citizens don’t understand it. This doesn’t stop them disapproving of it – only 24% of Britons support the EU, against 44% in the next most sceptical country, France.
The image of the EU is also very different in the UK. When asked “what does Europe mean to you”, the top three answers among Europeans as a whole were: “Freedom to travel and work”, “The Euro”, and “Peace in Europe”. In Britain, the three top answers were “Freedom to travel and work”, “A waste of money” and “Bureaucracy”. The UK was also the only country other than Cyprus and Austria where more than a fifth of people chose “losing our national identity”.
In reality, few people are really interested in European policy, and many of those inhabit the anti-EU echo chambers of the Net, convincing themselves that they are defending Britain and democracy against an evil foreign plot. Some of these arguments are based on ignorance or prejudice, but some are more rational, based on a desire for complete British sovereignty that excludes the possibility of foreign involvement. This strain deserves the title (used in French) of Sovereigntist, rather than Eurosceptic, since their views on Europe are fixed, not open to rationality or evidence.
The leavening of this overwhelmingly Eurosceptic media and online environment is the public’s acknowledgement of Britain’s identity as a European country: over half of 16-24 year-olds, for instance, self-describe as “Europeans”, according to a survey for TheSite.org. Meanwhile, a surprising 56% of Britons, according to Eurobarometer, approve of creating a Europe-wide history textbook for use in schools.
Whether Nick Clegg can win on European policy hinges on the balance viewers make between the EU (a huge dangerous bureaucracy), and Europe (our continent, and a place in which we have a stake).
This is important because, as Timothy Garton-Ash says in today’s Guardian, Nick Clegg is the first truly European British politician. He has a Spanish wife, he’s worked and lived abroad, and he speaks several languages. Most Brits didn’t attend Brugge’s elite Collège d’Europe, but many will have taken regular holidays, thought about buying a house abroad, worked abroad or have expat relatives. To those people – who have experienced continental culture, and seen its influence in the UK – Europe itself is not a threat, whatever they’ve read about the EU bureaucracy.
If, however, the (anti-)EU view prevails in their minds, the sheen of Nick Clegg’s first performance may be tarnished by his long track record in its elite institutions.
And as for the real questions about the future of the EU and European regulation? Don’t be silly, this is a British election.