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What has Europe ever done for us?

A fair-minded appraisal of Europe's achievements can only be found by ignoring simplistic views and far-fetched euromyths

The question of France’s role in Europe (and Europe’s role in France) is a hot potato in the upcoming French election. Front National’s Marine Le Pen wants an opt-out referendum and return of the French franc, while Emmanuel Macron from En Marche! is decidedly pro-European. The subject stirred strong emotions in the final presidential TV debate.

Here, a former law lecturer and Briton in France, Dr Tim Blakemore, looks at 'euromyths' from the past and examines a future with Britain on the sidelines…

It seems likely that France will remain a member of the EU for the foreseeable future, certainly until after the expected date of the UK’s exit, so UK expats in France will be living within the EU regardless of Brexit. As a consequence, some may be envious of those UK citizens who are looking forward to a future free from the shackles of European interference.

Others, of course, may be smug in the thought that they will stay at least partly European, while wondering to what extent they will be able to retain the benefits of club membership. It will all depend on your view of the EU and the letters page in Connexion reveals some firm opinions, albeit not always based on a real understanding of how the EU operates.

A common irritant is that the EU is undemocratic and run by unelected bureaucrats, even describing it by terms such as “vindictive”. This seems to picture it as some sort of monolithic and malign dictatorship.

I have never quite understood how this opinion has gained such credibility. The European Commission does the day to day business of the Union, and its several thousand civil servants are certainly not elected. But every department is headed by a representative of an elected government, so it is very similar to the UK civil service in that regard. 

Furthermore, any plans it draws up must be approved by the European Parliament before they become law. This is not terribly exciting for conspiracy theorists.

“Tomorrow Mr Bond I become President of the Commission and will rule the whole of Europe [manic laughter]”. 

“But you’ve forgotten one thing, Blofeld – the European Parliament.”

[Bond outlines the legislative process. Blofeld nods off. Bond escapes].

Not quite in Ian Fleming territory and unlikely to make the list of best-sellers.

As for being democratic, Parliament is made up of MEPs who have been voted for by ordinary people, each country represented according to its population with smaller countries having proportionately more MEPs.

This would not mean very much if the other common criticism were true, that it is “just a talking shop”. I suppose all parliaments generate their fair proportion of hot air, and the House of Commons often resembles an over-excited student debating society.

Yet not only can the European Parliament block the Commission’s proposals for laws, its other powers have enabled it to reject the Commission’s budget on two occasions and in 1998 this culminated in the resignation of the Commission itself. It must also approve the make-up of the Commission, and in 2004 this resulted in the withdrawal of several proposed appointments.

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There is then a further layer of democracy. Even if a proposal gets through Parliament, it must still be approved by the separate Council of Ministers (or “Council of the European Union”, to give it its proper title), which acts rather like the House of Lords in the UK. As it says on the tin, this body is made up of ministers from the elected government of every country and if either Parliament or Council rejects the proposal, it must be abandoned.

So the whole structure of the EU is based on principles of democracy. This seems to work insofar as each country’s interests are protected by its representatives in the Commission, Parliament and the Council. I have seen it suggested that one of the devious aims of the EU is to remove all identity from the different countries. I think that the Slovakian representative in the Commission, the Slovakian MEPs in Parliament and the Slovakian Minister in the Council might have something to say about attempts to make Slovakia the same as the Czech Republic.

Of course, it is understandable to view the EU as simply too large and complex, too ambitious in trying to run an association of 500 million people from 28 different countries. There has been nothing like it since the Roman Empire or the Soviet Union, neither of which is a particularly attractive role model.  

Certainly the people of Europe seem to find it too remote from their daily lives, as participation in elections for MEPs struggles to reach 50%. Nationalist politicians such as Marine Le Pen have been able to tap into this disenchantment and for many people their primary identification with their own country overwhelms their sense of “European-ness”. 

After Brexit, UK citizens living in Britain and Northern Ireland will be able to enjoy their national identity without being bothered by interference from the mainland of Europe. Yet it is a paradox that most people would be hard pushed to cite an EU regulation which affects their daily life. 

The UK tabloid press has tried to address this problem for decades, by creating “euromyths”. My personal favourite comes from “The Sun” of 18 July 2006: “Nutty EU officials want to rename Bombay mix Mumbai mix – to make the snack politically correct”.

The Commission commented laconically: “Any suggestion that the EU wouldget mixed-up in renaming a snack is ludicrous. You couldn’t make it up could you? Well, The Sun did”.  You might have your own favourite – “Off their rockers – EU wants to ban rocking horses”, “EU to tax our poppies”, “Ludicrous EU officials ready to ban yogurt”.  Not one, of course, was true. 

Yet there is no tradition of euromyths in the French press which can be blamed for the antagonism of some of the French public towards the EU. The arguments about loss of sovereignty and the amount of European regulation are probably missing the point. Perhaps people are not so much bothered about direct interference by the EU, as the sense that they are being continually scrutinised by a foreign institution. 

If you view the EU as malevolent and dictatorial this is sure to generate a sort of “Big Brother is watching you” feeling. So if you intend to carry on living in France, you might well be envious of your fellow Brits in the UK who are on course to shake off that sensation. 

The other side of the coin tends to support this, as letters to Connexion from readers who are anti-Brexit rarely mention any direct advantages of EU membership other than the usual economic arguments. Instead most talk of vague benefits of European co-operation, such as promoting understanding between different peoples and presenting a united front against other countries such as Russia, or even the USA. It seems to be this that makes them happy to live in the EU, rather than concrete benefits such as support for cross-border cultural associations, protection of the environment or encouragement of regional products and characteristics.  Little is heard of these aspects of EU membership and the blame must lie at the door of successive UK governments, who have neglected to provide positive information about the EU because of the fear of provoking the Eurosceptics in their own party.  It is hardly surprising therefore that people rely on fake news from the tabloids, or vague ideas of national identity or European-ness.

Anyway, in about two years’ time we will be living in an EU country as unusual hybrids; part-foreigner, part-European. So what’s it to be? Frustrated and envious expat? Or smug European “et fier d’être”?  The choice, as they say, is yours!

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