European Citizen has an interesting and thoughful post about why Guy Verhofstadt’s statement that “The three largest groups in the European Parliament announced today their commitment to pro-European values” is essentially the wrong approach. European Citizen’s critique is not too far away from my own analysis of the travails of the left, that essentially some proper ideological debate in the EP would be of benefit to them and everyone else, but sadly that’s not the route that Martin Schulz and his merry band have not decided to follow.

Essentially Verhofstadt, Schulz, Pöttering and everyone else in the EPP, ALDE and Socialists in the EP are arguing in the wrong frame. Debate about the EU is all too often played out in the pro-European versus anti-European frame, it’s a way of looking at the European Union that everyone understands. But the problem – as European Citizen argues – is that it’s not an especially useful way of coming up with answers to pressing problems or motivating citizens to engage in EU politics.

It’s a hard task, but we instead need to argue about the EU in 2 different frames – an ideological and values based approach for policy programmes, based on Europe-wide liberalism, social democracy, free market or whatever. Then when it comes to institutional and constitutional questions, and relations among the institutions, we need a debate about multi-level governance, sovereignty, democracy and federalism. If this article by veteran Italian federalist Guido Montani is anything to go by then Verhofstadt’s ‘pro-Europeanism’ is more nuanced than his words would imply.

Plenty of those of us who write online about the EU have been genuinely disgusted by the games being played out in the European Parliament since the elections. The consultation with the population every 5 years is done, so it’s time to look inward, keep the ‘eurosceptics’ out, divide up all the jobs among the boys, and then wonder in 2014 why nothing changed. How does one of the most energetic and knowledgeable Europeans I know, Julien Frisch, feel he has to label himself EU-sceptic as a result? And I find myself sympathising with him.

No, no, no. It need not be like that. In the nascent EU-blogosphere we manage to have all kinds of nuanced debates about values and policies, and it doesn’t end up in a pro versus anti-EU argument. We’re tired of that. I don’t agree with Frank Schnittger on CAP, but we can have a civil debate. Are our elected representatives completely incapable of framing things differently?

Photo: Jelle Goossens “Guy Verhofstadt” August 10, 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution


  1. Nick,

    I agree with you up to a point, but I don’t think that your points and mine are mutually exclusive. I am going to try to frame my arguments in a way that takes it as given that the European Union exists – I’m not going to even address the matter of whether it should, whether country X or Y should be in it.

    If you take on sceptics at their own game then you back yourself into a corner… If you believe that the EU is a conspiracy then no end of arguments about why it’s not are going to influence you. But if you reply to UKIP etc. directly (as Verhofstadt implies in his statement) then you give their views air.

    Better in my mind to focus the debate on politics and policies, not some pro-vs.-anti regarding the whole construct.

  2. Nick Crosby

    Thanks for the post and the ideas, which I largely share.
    My interpretation of your argument is that we need a values/policy debate- usual politics; and a process debate- how we make those values and policies work. My worry about including ‘sceptics’ in the second debate is that they are NOT a loyal opposition. The rules of the game are not agreed between us- they seek to destroy the EU’s system of governance by denying the principle of supra-nationalism. So, fine to have a debate with UKIP on a policy issue and have them in the mix– but, but, big concern about them being ‘included’ in the full conversation because they do not accept the basis of the project.

    It is a milder form of the very difficult question all democracies face when anti-democratic parties achieve power through democratic means- at what point do we say we cannot tolerarate them in the system? Thus I can see how the usual parties in the Parliament want to shut out the extremists and for German parliamentarians in particular, the need for vigilance against anti-democratic parties.

  3. “we need a debate about multi-level governance, sovereignty, democracy and federalism. ”

    I’m sure you understand this debate of yours can only be for your fellow believers. Still, it’s nice that you want to discuss these things, now the EU has had 50 years to bed down.

    Multi-level governance? You think we need another level of government above the one we’ve got now? I don’t think our problem is too little government.

    Sovereignty? The nation state’s sovereigny is violated by membership of the EU – likewise by membership of the WTO and other international bodies. This is a good thing for the EU because it doesn’t need to argue the case politically for any particular policy, it can merely impose it sans debat.

    Democracy? No referendum, no mandate, no legitimacy.

    I’ll leave federalism for now 🙂

  4. Aidan OSullivan

    Good post Jon.

    I believe people obsessed still with pro/anti European framing the debate will be able to relax after (and if) Lisbon is passed. Then the EU institutionally will be safe (from Cameron and co)….then normal left/right politics can come more into the mainsteam…

    …that with also Commission candidates well in advance of the 2014 elections should make for a more engaging European political scene.

  5. Jon, welcome to my way of thinking.
    I’m fed up with those that are vaguely pro the idea of working together with other MS, thinking things can be done better if we do it collectively, that the things that unite us are more important to there actually being a planet in the future for my son to grow up in than pulling up the drawbridge etc. being portrayed as wanting a superstate, wanting an unelected elite of foreigners deciding 100% of laws etc. I hate that view being characterised and parodied by the sceptical or nationalistic commentators and any attempt at nuance being portayed as weakness of conviction – i.e. it’s the old straw man game.
    But shutting out those that take that sort of line from the positions of power when they do actually have democratic legitimacy (no matter how uninformed they may feel that voters’ position to have been) is elitist and frankly anti-democratic.
    There’s got to be a forum in which a different way of thinking can start and the EU blogosphere’s not a bad place to start.

  6. Oh, hell, of course not. There the Yes side will be 100% grey as ever, confusing the constitutional questions with the political questions which, admittedly, the Treaty itself does too… But trying to win a vote is probably not the best time to try to re-frame a complete debate.

    Essentially I am in favour of the Treaty for constitutional reasons, and would vote yes if I had a vote. It makes decision making procedures a bit more efficient, and makes a small step towards the separation of constitutional from political questions at EU level.

  7. Fergus O'Rourke

    Well said, and well worth saying, not to mention overdue.

    But will such an approach commend itself to the pro-Lisbon side in Ireland’s forthcoming re-referendum ?

    I bet not.

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