Stanley's blog

Paul Adamson writes today in the Financial Times that Ireland’s gift to the rest of the EU is to raise the question of a Member State losing its Commissioner, this being a key reason why the Irish voted ‘No’ according to the findings of major government research published on 10 September. I do not agree with my old colleague. The main finding of the poll commissioned by the Irish government was a lack of knowledge or understanding of what they were voting on. The issue of Commissioner is only one example of lack of knowledge. Under the present treaties, a reduction in the number of Commissioners is obligatory from next year, whereas under the Lisbon Treaty, it is not required until 2014 and can be waived by unanimity in the European Council.

I agree that the EU is generally losing popular support, to a large extent because Europeans do not know enough about how it really operates. But Commissioners can’t really be the leading figures in that basic communications function. Until such time as Member State leaders explain to their citizens the relevance or importance of the Union to their daily lives and stop criticising ‘Brussels’ for what goes wrong, this will not change.

Of course, it does not help when the Irish Toaiseach and Commissioner McCreedy publicly confess that they have not read and will not read the Treaty of Lisbon.

Author :


  1. “Until such time as Member State leaders explain to their citizens the relevance or importance of the Union to their daily lives and stop criticising ‘Brussels’ for what goes wrong, this will not change.”: this is of course an important point… but I have strong doubts that this is going to change anytime soon. Why should it, it is so convenient for any public authority of any Member State to get away with its own mistakes and failures by accusing “Brussels” of being at their origin! I would not expect them to shoot themselves in the foot by explaining their populations that it’s them and not “Brussels”…

    Instead of waiting for interested parties to show some kind of “virtue” – an idealistic but rather unrealistic viewpoint in my very humble opinion – wouldn’t it be better to teach European schoolchildren how the EU institutions work, just as they should be taught how their own national institutions work?

    Democracy and participation are also about education, and so is critical judgement as well.

    Education seems to me much too often overlooked in this respect.

  2. Yes, yes, yes, Jackieh, education
    What a shame children don’t learn foreign languages from text books which tell the story of European integration

  3. I’d be interested to know exactly how well schoolkids in Europe are educated about their *national* institutions.

    Of course, they know more about how their national democracies and institutions function than they do re: the EU level, but how many British people actually understand, say, the Parliamentary Select Committees, or the actual powers of the House of Lords?

    Many don’t, and they find that perfectly OK, whereas the complexity of Brussels is considered a huge problem.

    The difference is one of trust. Most people trust their national setups, and so are comfortable not knowing its detailed workings.

    But they apply different standards to the EU level. They do not trust it, and so feel threatened by their lack of understanding of it.

    And into this threat-heightened state come the national politicians blaming Brussels for their mistakes, some reasonable Eurosceptics with good arguments about the EU, and a bunch of much louder xenophobes with frankly dishonest and in some cases quite lunatic conspiracy theories.

    And where are the rebuttals to the crap dished out by the eurosceptics? Where are the reasoned arguments for EU added value? Nowhere. The field is left to the eurosceptics.

    No wonder people vote No.

    Once trust is lost, it’s hard to get it back. Once someone does not trust an institution, they’ll view everything it says through a negative prism, undermining any communications activity before it gets started.

    And some people, of course, just distrust everything. Ever notice how many climate change sceptics there are on the Eurosceptic online communities?

  4. Mathew: Brussels is complex to explain in detail but not in simple terms. The European Council defines the direction and priorities (Cabinet in UK). The Commission is the executive (Government). The Council and Parliament are the two tiers of the legislature (together Parliament). The Court ensures compliance with EU law (Court).
    European Council is composed of current heads of government and/or state.
    Commission is appointed by Member Stataes and approved by European Parliament. Council consists of national ministers. Parliament is directly elected. Court is appointed by Member States.

  5. “I’d be interested to know exactly how well schoolkids in Europe are educated about their *national* institutions.” (Mathew): this is a very good question indeed – and this is most probably one of the reasons why people lose interest in politics, don’t bother to turn up even in national, regional or even local elections, and have the impression that everything political is just out of their control.

    Of course it is not the only reason for this – but it is an important one.

    Education, aducation, education… where has (citizen) education gone over the years?

  6. Stanley: of course, when you put it like that, it is simple. The democratic deficit of the EU institutions is more a deficit of understanding than a problem with the institution’s actual processes. However, this deficit of understanding results in a real democratic deficit, because if the governed don’t understand how they are governed, we have a genuine problem.

    My point is that it is extremely difficult to bridge that deficit (OK, I’m mixing metaphors) when people don’t trust the institution.

    When people trust an institution (e.g., their national setup), they don’t feel the need to learn the details. And when they are interested in some details, their starting point is NOT to question the the legitimacy of the institution itself.

    But when they don’t trust the institution, then everything about that institution is viewed with distrust. So anything the institution says to convince people that it *is* democratic, that is *is* useful, is automatically pre-filtered negatively.

    “They would say that, wouldn’t they?” becomes the automatic response. Anything a politician says to shift the blame to Brussels fits nicely into such a worldview. The positive impact of the EU is, similarly, automatically discounted.

    And trust is easy to lose, hard to get back.

  7. “But when they don’t trust the institution […] anything the institution says […] is automatically pre-filtered negatively. ” (Mathew): I couldn’t agree more. More weight, because more trust, will be put on any negative signal, less weight, because less trust, will be put on positive ones, perception analysis will be distorted, and once it has reached the point of being distorted, you may just as well dance upon your head, il will not change anything more I’m afraid.

    But on the other hand – why do people take their national resp. regional or even local institutions for granted and trust them almost blindly (if not for pleople’s growing disinterest in political issues)?

    My two cents’ worth on the topic:

    Local, regional and even national *identities* are identities that have built up slowly and not always steadily but rather surely over, not just years or even decades, but downright centuries. Some European nations can pride themselves of being more than one millennium old. Of course they are the result of unification efforts and processes that were not always carried out on a voluntary basis, much more often they were imposed on people (hence the regional identities), but the length of the time passing finally validated them in the minds of their inhabitants, and over the generations people learned to identify with those nations, and to perceive the individuals living in them as belonging to the same group.

    And, as we all know, every group has to be managed, every living space has to be administered, and the role of institutions consists of doing just that.

    National, regional and local institutions are legitimated by people because they are perceived as having the role of managing groups and administering living spaces that people identify with and feel like they belong to.

    Is that sense of identification and belonging present in the minds of people when it comes to the EU?

    Not quite.

  8. I agree with most of what you say, but the idea that any country has an uninterrupted history of 1000 years is stretching the definition of continuity to breaking point. But historical facts are not the point. The point is that people believe their national stories.

    Citizens build their country’s national identities by telling each other stories, conveniently forgetting episodes they’d rather leave out of the picture, and accentuating the positive, creating a sort of consensus of what it means to be French, or German, or Russian. And that sense of belonging to soemthing creates the trust that started this conversation.

    All of this happened over the last few centuries, beginning sometime around the Treaty of Westphalia, around 350 years ago, when the idea of state sovereignty really kicked in.

    Moreover, national identities are built in relation to the identities of the people across the border – being British is not just about being British. It’s also about not being French.

    These process just doesn’t happen at the EU level. And one has to ask whether it ever should. Being Australian, I *like* European regional and national diversity. But it may set natural limits on the EU’s reach, as the rejection of the constitution, with its trappings of state sovereignty, demonstrated.

    Maybe, in time, Europeans will see themselves as EUropeans, but not if they’re pushed into it too quickly. As you said, identities take time to form. In the meantime, watching the different nations of the EU sneer at each other remains fun, given that this is now not likely to result in them invading each other’s territory.

  9. “[…] national identities are built in relation to the identities of the people across the border – being British is not just about being British. It’s also about not being French.” (Mathew): yes, and that’s probably the crux of the issue when it comes to defining European identity.

    The founders of the European Communities, the so-called “Fathers of Europe”, wanted to create Europe by *abolishing its borders* (gradually of course) *in order to create prosperity that would in turn lead to peace*. The driving force behind the initiative to create Europe was the Never Again motto that followed World War II.

    It is not hard to imagine what such a mindset meant in terms of loss of identity, and hence of resistance from many European leaders – the population being “benevolently indifferent” in so far as Europe translated for them into welcome subsidies for their activity (e.g. the Common Agricultural Policy, which used to be considered as European integration’s brightest success until a few years ago). But this merging of identities was supposed to bring on *peace* – and apparently, within the borders of the European Union at least, this policy has been successful for the last 50 years.

    But if the definition of identity is also about defining what one is *not*, this means that the EU, in order to create a European identity, will have to define what is not Europe, and how and why the non-Europeans are not European. And this kind of self-assertion, as history largely proved in the past, almost inevitably leads to conflicts between “us” and “them”.

    Of course it will help Europeans to see what, say, the Portuguese and the Swedish share in common, which they might not share with, say, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Japanese or even Americans, and hence begin to feel EUropean – but this also means that the building of Europe will no longer be like the first step to establishing world peace.

    Of course the world has changed a lot since 1957, and one major change is that the “rest of the world” no longer being mainly a set of European colonies, a European war would not necessarily mean a world war, in opposition to what happened twice in the past century (both World Wars started as European internal wars in the first place).

    Multipolarisation seeming to be bound to replace globalisation according to the most recent analyses, the construction of Europe regains pertinence – but no longer being geared to a priority objective of “peace”, it will have to undergo a great change in character if we have to build a genuinely EUropean identity.

  10. One other thing has changed since 1957: the cold war is over.

    Apart from meaning that, as you say, a European war will not necessarily trigger a global one, this also means that the military umbrella under which the EU was able to form is not necessarily going to be around for another 50 years.

    The ‘us and them’ mentality that came with it is also looking pretty dated, as enlargement shows.

    So the big question is whether the EU will be able to stand on its own two (27?) feet in such a multipolar world, and what such a world means for EUropean, European and national identity.

    Lest we get too worried, let’s not forget how thoroughly European values are embedded in the UN – e.g., the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    But then again, given recent events, maybe the cold war’s gonna come back! ;-(

  11. Yes, the “cold war” could be back in some form already, even if it is in a different form from the one we used to know between 1945 and 1989, the world having changed since then.

    “The ‘us and them’ mentality that came with it is also looking pretty dated, as enlargement shows.”: I think what is pretty dated is not the “us” and “them” mentality in itself (which maybe is just universally human, for better for worse) but the definition of who “us” and “them” will be. Of course there is no longer Russian/Eastern European Communism, there is no longer the Warsaw Pact, so that Easterns European countries, which used to be “them” for Western Europeans during the cold war, now belong to “us”, as has been proven by EU enlargement.

    But this does not mean, by any means, that there is no “them” left. At least not if we look not just at Europe, but at the world as a whole – and at the place and role of Europe (or EUrope) in this world as a whole.

    “So the big question is […] what […] a multipolar world […] means for EUropean, European and national identity”: this is in fact the correct question.

    Since the Seattle demonstrations of 1999 dunring the (failed) WTO summit, there has been a lot of talk buzzing around about so-called “globalisation”. The cold war had already been over for a decade, the world had remained unipolar, the US revendicating being at its helm to establish a “new world order” and not being much challenged by Europe whose values are largely similar – in fact all of those “New Worlds”, USA, Canada, Australia, Latin America, were built by populations of European origin who reduced the native local populations to little more than a mere substrate, and a lot could already be said about this, but the fact is that as a consequence they build together what we usually call “the West” and base on a very similar set of values – trade barriers had been gradually abolished on a global scale following a process very similar to what happened in the European Union, the whole world was open(ing) to everybody and everyone, and in such a context, European construction was often perceived by the younger generations as a by-product of globalisation (which of course it isn’t if we take a closer look at history, European integration rather set a model here, but we are talking perceptions here, more than actual facts).

    In that context, I admit that I personally doubted whether European construction still bore any relevance with globalisation underway.

    Since the Russian/Georgian conflict last August we seem to have “woken up” in a way, realising how much the unipolar world we had lived in for one or two decades was being challenged. In fact we should have known already that it had been the case all through – and not only because of 11 September 2001 and all the talk over Islam and Al QAida that followed. China ignored US admonestations on more than one occasion. India had been economically on the rise, and the best IT engineers in the world have come from Calcutta for a good decade at least. What about Japan, which had been considered “holding the planet’s prosperity” together with Germany (from the EU!) in the 1980s?

    We should have known what was really going on beyond the buzz talk. But, well, Al Qaida is a fuzzy set of groups of rebellious individuals, which no official State really controls; Japan and India only fought at the economic level, which led them to industrial innovation and creation of competences the whole world benefited from; China said “no” (to be polite) to the US but stayed neutral in most international issues and little tempted by military adventure, at least out of its traditional sphere of influence, which is Asia; the only “State danger” Europe really perceived was Russia, and Russia had entered the G8 and become an ally of sorts to the US; so why really bother? Of course some people, like French President Jacques Chirac, expressed wishes for a more multipolar, more open world, but their view of it was rather angelic, and should have been termed “multilateralism”, which would have described their vision more accurately.

    But when individuals in, say, Arab countries, expressed a wish for a more “multipolar world”, they really meant “multipolar”: a world where one country would not be the only power ton rule the world, and in which countries that would not be powerful by themselves could regain a say in world matters by being in the position of a “referee” of sorts (by having a weight that each “camp” would be interested in having on its own side). They felt that the US, and the whole “West” behind them, including the EU, were just bossing the rest of the world around – and they did not appreciate being treated this way.

    Europe being still under the US military umbrella, in a world where the “West” was considered the ruling power, and in an environment without immediate serious danger from a neighbour, it could afford being angelic and dreaming of setting a model for the rest of the world to follow, which would eventually lead to world peace, according to a vision very similar to that of the founding fathers of the European Union.

    But then Russia is “back”. Europe discovers that Russia is not necessarily bound to be an ally – at least not unconditionally. Russia is still powerful. And, most importantly – Russia belongs to European immediate neighbourhood.


    Here the multipolar world really becomes a reality – and it shows itself as what it really is, that is: multipolar, and not multilateral.

    Ouch again!

    Europe discovers, or rediscovers, that its own interests are not necessarily identical with those of the USA – which still provide its military umbrella – or the other so-called “western” countries… and that it stands weak and divided to defend its own interests and its own positions.

    Before August 2008, European countries on an individual basis could be angelic about multilateralism and believe in a peaceful world, while dreaming of their glorious past where each one of them used to be a world power in its own right – without needing any other European country, which most of the time was a rival. Old rivalities, on the other hand, still came to expression in so many EU negotiations, as well as in less political, more “cultural” events (just think of the Eurovision song contest!).

    But now the old enemies really have to mourn their past glory, the times when each one of them wrote alone the history of a big part of the whole planet, and start to *really* work together to defend interests that have *really* become common to all of them, lest they lose all kind of say in world affairs – in a world that is all but angelic and peace-driven, where the balance of powers is shifting, and where alliances shift as well.

    The good news for Europe is that in such a multipolar world, European integration and the European Union regain pertinence.

    But is Europe – and the EU – ready for the change it entails?

    And are Europeans ready to trade their vision of “building Europe for peace” for a vision of “building Europe in order no to be trampled upon by the rest of the world”?

    That is the question.

  12. Quick update:

    A post by iblogger about so-called “Trust2.0” in another context got me thinking about this conversation again, resulting in a longer post about how trust in a web2.0 world may open new possibilities for explaining what the EU does, and why.

Comments are closed.