Earlier in the year, I spoke at a Federal Trust conference on European citizenship and specifically the British perspective on the issue. The slides from the presentation I gave are here 110120 citizenship slides and there is a report on the whole event here Conference_Report_20th_Jan_2011.
Missing from my slides was my overall conclusion, which I talked about at the conference itself and will put down in writing here.
The development of the European Union has been founded on the Monnet method, that is to say a series of incremental steps, each one of which deals with a contemporary problem in an effective manner but which is also consistent with future steps in the same direction. For example, the founding institutions included the European Assembly, a body which could in time become directly elected and influential (and renamed the European Parliament).
Much of the discussion amongst federalists about Europe focuses on the future steps, but the challenge for the British sense of being European is to deal with a contemporary problem. And what are the contemporary problems which the EU is dealing with?
The EU plays a small but growing role in the fight against crime, and when it comes to the balance between security and liberty that must be struck in that fight, the European institutions could play an important role. Prior to the Lisbon treaty, most of the discussion about this balance took place among the officials of the various national interior ministries: now that the European Parliament has acquired the power of co-decision in this area, the sense of involvement of the public might grow.
As with crime, so with environment: there is a balance to be struck between environmental protection on the one hand and economic growth, as conventionally conceived, on the other. And there is potentially a major role for the EU in coordinating the investment necessary for a relaunch of the European economy.
But the prevalent sentiment in Europe at the moment is austerity and retrenchment, not investment for growth. Environmental concerns have receded somewhat in the face of the economic crash and its associated economic weakness, along with perhaps some overstatement by the environmental advocates themselves.
The EU would also be a vital tool in the battle for multiculturalism in Europe, were the political classes interested in fighting that battle for the equality of the citizens rather than pandering to racism.
For a number of current issues, the EU has an important and indeed irreplaceable role to play. If it were to play this role in the public eye, it could go a long way to convincing the British people of the value of its actions and that they should share in its successes. But as long as the policies we live under are those of the backlash against the excesses of the previous decade, the particular merits of the EU going to be called upon only a little, and its profile, role and relevance will not be seen and understood.
The things that the EU is good at are not the things currently in demand, in which case developing a sense of European citizenship is going to be harder rather than easier. Europe must go with the tide of public policy and not against it.