Being a citizen of Europe

Hugo Young

By Hugo Young

I did not speak from a fully coherent text, and probably did not say everything in these extended notes. But you are welcome to them, even though they are in note form. Perhaps, if you do circulate this stuff, you would emphasise that they were just my notes, which explains the lack of verbs etc Rgds HY

Draft notes on: BEING A CITIZEN OF EUROPE
[9.30 Tuesday 26 Feb, 100 Park Village East]

This is a very ambitious idea. A quite unfamiliar one to the British. We have been, notionally, citizens of Europe since 1973 when we went into the EEC – though the term was formally brought into being only by the Maastricht Treaty.

As well as our other opt-outs from the details of that treaty – the social chapter, the single currency – we behave like a country that has opted out of citizenship. It is part of our dismal willingness not to see ourselves as citizens of anywhere, but subjects of the Queen. Psychologically, being a citizen of Europe is a big leap partly because being a citizen of Britain is not a status we have fully internalised.

Take the Flag. A relatively innocuous, unthreatening emblem of citizenship. If you go to continental capitals, you see the EU flag flying outside all kinds of government buildings. The Quai d’Orsay. The Belgian Parliament. Alongside national flags.

Consider what would happen here if the EU flag flew above the Foreign Office, or stood in the room of the Foreign Secretary, or flew, perish the possibility, above Downing Street. Actually, the Brits are not great flag people – cfd. with Americans. But the reaction would be of total outrage, and no foreign secretary has dared to do it.

Quite pathetic. Cowardly. Shows how very far we have to go to embrace the notion that European citizenship is something that runs in parallel with other identities: is not a threat to British citizenship.

This conference is a very good idea. An effort to burrow into the different versions of even national citizenship that every member state displays: the different rules and rights to be found across states that all belong not only to European civilisation but to a European tradition of political organisation: with chequered histories and very different records as far as democracy goes – but now, thanks to the EU, rooted into the same essentials. It is worth remembering that the country that invented the concept of European citizen, and pushed for it to be enacted at Maastricht, was in fact Spain – the final sealing off of the Franco era.

I would like to start off the conference by making some broader points, and raising some broader questions. The announcement of the conference asks, as its keynote question, what will it feel like to be a citizen of Europe?

I’d like to touch on a few themes that strike me as important in addressing that question: a personal statement, not a jurisprudential one. The question has made me organise thoughts I have not quite had to organise before.

First: not a member of a superstate. Not all citizenship requires a state – see Commonwealth. The state will live on. This is an experiment, never forget – that is its real excitement. We don’t need to think in old categories: groping for one country. One Europe country never will exist. We have to acknowledge in our forward vision of E that nation states, with large numbers of national prejudices and practices will remain. On the other hand, those of us who think of ourselves as European should not give up that ground quite so easily. There is not now a country called Europe, and I don’t think there will be for many decades. But in history there used to be a very strong concept of Europe, Europa, which reached a kind of climax around the Enlightenment. Europe was, then, a state of mind. In the 17th and 18th centuries, educated Europeans travelled round Europe without passports and without being aware they were crossing national frontiers. Our kings spoke German, our elites spoke French. Thinkers like Voltaire commanded public opinion on a European scale. The Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 still stands as the basis of European law and politics, as it was re-formed eventually in the European Union. Nationalism, indeed, was, one might argue, a 19th century aberration – the breakdown of the idea of Europe. The nation, still less the nation-state, has not always been the fundamental unit or existence. However, one has to admit that this is the way we see nations now, and there is a limit to the extent to which any supra-national body can challenge that picture

Second, though – am happy to be a member of an emerging entity, which in certain fields, undoubtedly needs to transcend the nation state. Two aspects of this, I suggest, deserve more talking about: language, and defence In the 18th century, if there was a common language in Europe – always, of course, among the elites – it was French. And France has made enormous efforts to retain the primacy of French as the language of the EU. But it is a losing battle. It was lost, probably when Britain entered the EEC in 1973 – not so much because Britain wanted English (Heath had promised Pompidou he would not insist on it) but because the Irish and the Danes, our fell-entrants wanted English too. This trend is certain to continue. All the applicant countries are led by people who speak English and not French. Language is to be seen as a practical issue not one of principle. English will become more and more the language of choice, the lingua franca. This, at least, gives the British citizen a certain advantage in their quest to feel more like a citizen of Europe. I want also to mention defence. It is, after all, at the heart of citizenship. For whom is the citizen called on to bear arms? Conventional wisdom says: this is the last redoubt of the nation state. Largely because it is the last power which national governments and parliaments think they have. So much else has been regionalised, or globalised – sent down to Scotland, or up to Brussels and beyond – that the power to wage war tends to be seen as the last redoubt of national citizenship. But this is the most absurd of illusions. I won’t burden you with a lot of statistics, save to say that it is perfectly clear to the eye of almost every expert that the nation-states of Europe will soon be incapable of defending themselves, let alone being of use in their European world, unless they collaborate and sink their national aspirations. If there is not a European army in due course, there will be no armies anywhere – just overblown headquarters and bureaucracies engaging in the pretence that they have firepower at their disposal So the idea of a Euro army is fine by this European citizen. I think the Nato history gives us an example that should dispose of our worries about sovereignty – but needs to be updated, given the new stance of the US towards the European world. I put defence in the same category as language – and, indeed, the euro – in this account of future citizenship: as a European development that is inevitable. I also think that seeing EU as a single military space may be rather more sensible, and a lot more achievable with popular consent, than seeing it as a single social space, where social burdens are placed on different countries which their people find unjust and unacceptable. i.e. I contend that it will be simpler to get EU peoples to see the virtue of defending each other in one army than paying for each other’s social failure.

Third, though, I’d like to say something about the legal space of Europe. This is, of course, an inescapable feature of citizenship, and has been from the beginning. Among the many lunacies which it was always a pleasure to watch unfolding in the last days of the Major government – and beyond – was the solemn assertion by numerous Tory politicians that Britain should secure an opt-put from the workings of the European Court of Justice. We should be able to pick and choose, a la carte, which laws this nation would decide to obey. The sheer bovine ignorance underlying that idea emphasises how very basic the law is to modern Europe. Earlier than the ECJ, there was the European Convention of Human Rights – resting quite heavily, alongside the Universal Declaration, of 1948, on the 1789 model as I mentioned. The Council of Europe, custodians of the Convention, have taken the view that it has not only a judicial but a declaratory importance. Countries have been admitted to the Council that have a low historic regard for human rights, in the expectation that they will experience the civilising effects of liberal laws on courts and judges from an authoritarian tradition. This will take a very long time to prove its worth. Russia, Turkey etc However, we do want the best case not the worst-case standards to apply. I believe the new European Arrest Warrant, perhaps the latest symbol of EU integration, is a dangerous weapon in the hands of authority. It will make extradition very easy, between countries with very different traditions of trial, and different attitudes to delay and evidence. The warrant contains few protections against random arrests of people whom the Greek, or Austrian or indeed British police just might like to interview. The ERP spotted this. Proposed a version of habeas corpus. Not supported by any governments. To me, this is an aspect of Europeanness I rather dread: the refusal to acknowledged best practice, the reluctance to see the value of what is a common law, British remedy.

Fourth – I do believe that citizenship requires one to take seriously all debates about the institutions of Europe. This is a contentious and much despised subject. It also highlights what is undoubtedly a problem at the heart of our aspirations for Europe – namely the gulf that seemingly exists between the elite and the masses. EU not seen as a popular, bottom-up project – and therefore portrayed as somehow fundamentally flawed. Jack Straw made a speech last week that failed to come to grips very coherently with this. He started by apologising for the complexity of the discussion, and emphasising how vital it was to make Europe meaningful to people’s lives – jobs, crime, etc. He sounded as though he was going to make a speech sweeping aside all Euro-guff, and reduce the problems of subsidiarity, and the Council, and the Parliament, and the Commission to the level of the kitchen sink where perhaps they should belong. But of course he could not do it. He had to confess these were problems at the very heart of European Union, and could not be addressed in anything but a pretty intellectual way. I think he’s right about that. Sure, we need to make the issue better understood, in the hope that there will slowly appear more and more people who want to understand them. But my point is that, even if very many people don’t know or care about the EU, the decisions it makes about itself are of central importance. Therefore we cannot dumb down too much in the debates about the future of Europe, now that it stands on the brink of enlargement. Dumbing-down, after all, has been the persistent attitude of the Eurosceptic, to whom the headlines of the Sun have become the gospel of higher truth. So I think the citizen needs to be ready for serious debate, without paying too much lip-service to the very many people who do not, and probably never will, want to know anything about the distribution of powers between the parliament and the council, and all that kind of stuff. At the beginning of this – let’s be ready to think about the next stage as the writing of a constitution. Jack Straw was obviously worried about that. Very apologetic. Hammered, predictably, by the Times and others. But we do need a constitution – not, as I argued before, because this is a fully fledged state, but because that’s the right word to describe the arrangement of powers we rather badly need to clarify.

It is only the British who are really horrified at the thought of a constitution. As neuralgic a word as the flag. It takes me to the fifth and final point I want to make.

I go back to the beginning. British citizens, now aspiring to be European citizens, have got particular problems. Their island history….. Their warrior relations with Europe All leading to a view of themselves that makes them think they are incorrigibly different: not only different but superior. If I look at where the British behave least like other EU countries I would say it is in the extravagance of their attachment to national symbols and identity. But this is not just as problem with mass opinion. With the leaders also. Especially Blair….. An obsession with leadership. Other countries don’t talk about that. Of course, they are subtler. France and Germany assume they are leaders without having to shout about it. Unable to make any argument as a European argument: only as a British argument – and a British argument that puts Britain first. And puts Britain at the head of whatever European issue is on the table. Unable to kick the centralising habit……

Britain used to be seen as valued for her political wisdom, her political stability. A leader, it used to be thought, in the shaping of a democratic Europe. That was quite a long time ago. Our politics is actually rather ill-equipped for EU politics: non-coalitionist. Perhaps the first question a British would-be European citizen wants to ask is whether their leader, Mr Blair, believes himself to be a citizen of Europe. I have never heard him say so.

These notes were prepared by Hugo Young, chairman of the Scott Trust and columnist on The Guardian, for a talk given at the seminar Citizens in Europe, citizens of Europe on 26 February 2002. He can be contacted at h.young@guardian.co.uk. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

More information

Citizens in Europe, citizens of Europe: background paper

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