by Frank Furedi
The chattering classes’ hysterical reaction to David Cameron’s veto of a revised Lisbon Treaty reveals the dark heart of pro-EU sentiment.
As I drive along listening to the BBC Radio 4 show, The World At One, I am left in no doubt as to this programme’s deep hostility to prime minister David Cameron’s decision to veto changes to the EU Lisbon Treaty.
When the presenter, the usually sensible Martha Kearney, asks Andrus Ansip, the prime minister of Estonia, if he thinks there is increasing anger in the EU over Cameron’s actions, I realise that something very weird is going on. Why ask the leader of a small Baltic state how he feels about the prime minister of Britain? Since when have the emotions of foreign political leaders been a serious topic of concern for a programme titled The World At One?
Kearney does not simply pose the question to Ansip; she prefaces it with comments about how other EU leaders are very angry at Cameron. Nevertheless, her attempt to incite her interviewee to reinforce the BBC consensus on the state of European emotionalism doesn’t quite succeed. ‘I am not angry’, replies Ansip. Possibly he is too ‘old Europe’ and too old school to be conversant in the values of today’s communications clerisy, which cleaves to the doctrine of emotional correctness. Ansip disagrees with Cameron but he does not suffer from the emotional incontinence demanded of him by the BBC.
At first sight, it is difficult to understand the intense level of anger and outrage directed at Cameron by opinion formers and cultural entrepreneurs. Since when have the EU and the Lisbon Treaty acquired such a sacred status among the clerisy? The EU is many things, but it has never been a much-loved institution. So why is it that, all of a sudden, scepticism towards this institution is treated as the moral equivalent of Chamberlain’s act of treachery in Munich in 1938?
It is one thing to accuse Cameron of committing a diplomaticfaux pas or the Foreign Office of ineptitude. But the criticisms currently being made of Cameron verge on the hysterical. When I listen to the hyperbole about what will apparently be the consequences of his destructive behaviour, it almost sounds as if he has committed an act of political betrayal in order to appease a handful of incorrigible reactionary Eurosceptics.
Why this over-the-top reaction to what could turn out to be a relatively minor case of diplomatic miscommunication?
Outwardly, the anger of the cosmopolitan clerisy is directed at Cameron’s alleged appeasement of Tory Eurosceptics. The term Eurosceptic has a special meaning for the adherents to cosmopolitan policymaking. In their view, Euroscepticism is associated with values they abhor: upholding national sovereignty, Britishness and a traditional way of life. The moralistic devaluation of these values was vividly communicated by the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, who this week characterised Tory Eurosceptics as the ‘pinstriped effluence of an ex-imperial nation’. He seeks to dehumanise these people by arguing that this ‘specimen’s ascendancy’ was reflected in Cameron’s behaviour during the treaty negotiations. Cohen’s moral devaluation of Eurosceptics, his dismissal of them from the ranks of humanity, is captured in his description of them as a ‘bunch of insular snobs who seem to have a hard time restraining their inner fascist’.
The intemperate language suggests that the venomous anger directed at Eurosceptics cannot simply be driven by the clerisy’s love affair with the European ideal. Rather, what is at issue here is the clerisy’s preference for the technocracy-dominated and cosmopolitan-influenced institutions of Brussels. From their standpoint, the main virtue of the EU is that its leaders and administrators speak the same language as the UK clerisy. They read from the same emotional and cultural script, which they believe to be superior to the script and values associated with national sovereignty. That is why it isn’t surprising that a BBC journalist can casually ask the Estonian prime minister to have a go at her own national leader. The UK-based communications clerisy has a greater affinity with the outlook of EU technocrats and political administrators than it does with the outlook of its own people.
Of course, Cameron may be isolated in the corridors of power in Brussels - but the clerisy is more than a little out of touch with popular sentiments in Britain. Indeed, their visceral castigation of Eurosceptics is actually a roundabout way of morally condemning what the old oligarchy used to call ‘the little people’. The main sin of Euroscepticism is that it has the potential for mobilising popular sentiment. And certainly, the anger of the cosmopolitan elite does not resonate with people getting on with their lives in Birmingham, Newcastle or Leeds. Those who want to expose the heinous Eurosceptic plot to undermine the EU should remember that opinion polls demonstrate that the majority of the UK electorate does not like the EU, and when the Mail on Sunday carried out a poll asking ‘was Cameron right to use the veto?’, 62 per cent of respondents said ‘yes’.
In Britain, even at the best of times the EU has rarely been conceptualised as anything more than a pragmatic convenience. Historically, significant sections of both the left and the right have been critical of the bureaucratic ethos of this institution. Even those of us who love Europe, its history and its culture, and who strongly value the coming together of European peoples, have never had much affection for the institutions of the EU.
One final point: the cosmopolitan values of the clerisy have no progressive content. They contain no real universalist aspirations but rather reflect the sectional outlook of a cultural oligarchy that revels in drawing distinctions between itself and the great unwashed. The clerisy’s alternative to national sovereignty is not some other form of democratic decision-making; on the contrary, it fervently advocates insulated decision-making. The pro-EU elite continually tries to establish institutions that insulate decision-makers from citizens, and it prefers the rule of technocrats and experts over elected representatives.
Scepticism towards the EU is a legitimate, democratically informed standpoint. Scepticism towards Europe is not, of course. Some of my German friends are more than a little astonished to have discovered that a small number of English towns have decided to cancel twinning arrangements with local authorities on the continent. Yes, some of these arrangements were administratively orchestrated and did not genuinely bring together the peoples of Europe. But on balance, we need to be reaching out to our fellow citizens across the continent, to show that Europe is not an artificially constructed institution but is its people!