Europe's problem is not Euroskepticism but indifference
After the European Union agreed to delay Brexit until January 31, the UK House of Commons supported the initiative of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to dissolve the government and call new early elections for December 12. Next week, the parliament will be dissolved and the election campaign will begin. After almost four years of divisive Brexit politics, it is easy to forget that most UK voters had previously given little thought to the European Union. And according to recent polling, the same is true of voters across the rest of the EU, suggesting that the bloc's biggest problem is not Euroskepticism but indifference, Project Syndicate writes in the article What Brexit Reveals About the EU.
When future historians look back at this episode, they will probably conclude that there was an ocean of apathy between two sets of hardcore true believers on each side of the European question. Britain had always been a semi-reluctant EU member state, so it didn’t take much to tip the balance slightly in favor of leaving. The key moment came when then-Prime Minister David Cameron, driven by political dynamics within the Conservative Party, made the fateful decision to hold a referendum on the issue, amid the economic and political stress of the long recession that followed the 2008 global financial crisis.
Ever since the establishment of the European Economic Community (the precursor to the EU) in 1957, Britons have had a rather detached, sometimes even condescending, view of European integration. This remained the case even after the United Kingdom’s accession to the bloc in 1973, and even after a significant majority of British voters affirmed EU membership in a referendum in 1975. For the British, being a part of “Europe” was a transactional relationship, not a marriage of love.
By contrast, the countries that suffered the most from two world wars and German occupation during World War II (France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy) have always had deeper, more sentimental reasons for supporting the EU. The specter of war features prominently in these countries’ collective memory, even among younger generations that were born long after peace had been secured.
But even continental Europeans’ commitment to the European project should not be taken for granted. This month, the think tank Friends of Europe published an opinion poll based on interviews with over 12,000 respondents across the 28 EU countries, and found that 60% of respondents “aren’t sure they would miss the EU if it were gone.” That result should chill the bones of all EU leaders.
Predictably, the share of British respondents who aren’t sure if they would miss the EU is 63%. But a staggering 72% of French respondents feel the same way, as do 67% of Italians and 60% of Germans. On this evidence, the EU’s biggest problem is that citizens simply take it for granted, and do not particularly care whether it thrives or fades away.
This problem may reflect a failure of communication. After all, a supranational bureaucratic entity comprising an endless array of directorates, agencies, and committees was always going to find it hard to be loved, or even to explain what it does and why it exists. But the bigger problem is that the EU struggles to make quick, clear, and ambitious decisions. It has a far easier time saying no than yes. It is a lot better at defusing conflicts among members than it is at mustering collective action in the interest of clearly defined shared objectives.
This wasn’t always the case. The launch of the euro in 1999 was a big, clear, epochal moment, following a major political decision and the successful implementation of many technical measures. But since then, things haven’t gone well when it comes to the one issue that most concerns ordinary voters: the eurozone’s effectiveness at creating jobs and ensuring rising living standards. Nowadays, the euro elicits reluctant acceptance, not passion and conviction.
The slogan of Britain’s famed Special Air Service is, “Who Dares Wins.” But in the case of Brexit, one could adapt it to say, “Who Cares Wins.” In the run-up to the 2016 referendum, pro-EU forces failed to make enough Britons care about EU membership. Perhaps that will change during the December general election campaign, but it would be risky to bet on it. Proponents of the EU across the other member states should take note. Indifference is their greatest enemy.