Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t make it not important

Simon Usherwood | Apr 2021

As an academic specialising in the study of euroscepticism, I’ve long been used to encountering people who wish the European Union would change, or even just vanish. Such views have become only more common during the past decade, with the multiple challenges to the EU’s operation, structures and even its purpose.

Most obviously, the past five years have been marked by the Brexit process, with its only-semi-implicit notion that once it was ‘done’ the UK could stop worrying quite so much about bendy bananas and eurocrats and instead get on with whatever it wants to.

But as we have seen, things don’t work like that.

Much of the historic attitude to things European – and especially things EU – in the UK has been one of detached bemusement: look at the funny/odd/vaguely sinister things happening over there. If you want to suggest a model for this, then you might argue that the UK’s European role has been to step in when things take a bad turn on the Continent, but otherwise keeping an arm’s length. “With Europe, but not of it”, as Churchill put it: mere geography drives the necessity of any interaction.

However, geography matters, and rather more than we might credit. From the spread of a virus to the logistics chains for our economic systems, from the pervasive effects of environmental degradation to the all-too-tense politics of the Irish border: space matters.

One of the most telling aspects of researching eurosceptics and their activities over the past quarter century has been their focus on escaping the present: any sense of the future is painting in rosy tones of everyone and everything cleaving to their preferred image of how things should be. The oppression of now that forces us to accept the edicts of faceless and unaccountable decision-makers in ‘Brussels’ is suddenly transformed into an emancipation of tomorrow, where those same people and organisations will bend to our will. Taking back control, if you will.

This weak/strong paradox is found in many political movements, most notably in populism, because it is a convenient fiction: with one bound we can liberate ourselves, but until then we have to suffer things not being good.

That tomorrow, with all its jam, never comes, of course, because the world does not work like that. Instead, we have to recognise that to a very considerable degree we have to engage with things as we find them.

Which is why the work of European Studies is as important now as it has ever been, both in the UK and across Europe.

Just as the EU remains the dominant mechanism for organising inter-state relations between its member states, so too it acts as a strong centre of gravity for the entire continent. Partly that is a function of its extensive third-country treaty-based relations, but it comes much more from the economic, regulatory and political weight of a system that compromises the largest and richest bloc in the world.

Put differently, just as it is essential for those living within the EU to understand how it works (and how it doesn’t), so too is it essential for those outside to do the same, for its effects shape their lives too. Indeed, I would argue it’s even more important for countries like the UK, who have no formal power to shape the EU’s decisions and so must make the most of every other opportunity that is available.

This all comes with a number of key messages.

Firstly, it requires an active and connected community of scholars working in European Studies. As the in-coming Chair of UACES, the UK’s European Studies association, I’m very proud that over half our membership comes from outside our nominal home country, and that we have a thriving number of connections with sister organisations.

The UK has long been one of the leading centres of scholarship in this field, long predating British membership of the then European Economic Community, and the high quality of new colleagues continuing to come through doctoral programmes suggests that there are many more years of useful and stimulating insights to come.

But those insights need to shared. One of the outcomes of the Brexit process was to underline the value of academic work in helping politicians, practitioners and the public to make sense of the complex issues involved. The value of this has translated across national borders and I am hopeful that academics can form an important part of the contributions to this year’s Conference on the Future of Europe and to the various national debates regarding Europe and its future.

For our part, academics need to recognise that the value of their work cannot simply be a function of citations within their peer-group, but also their ability to inform non-academic audiences. This is not about promoting any particular vision of what should be – not that colleagues are in any particular agreement about that in any case – but rather about supporting a public political sphere in making decisions that are as grounded as possible in evidence, rather than prejudice or ignorance.

And for that reason, the third key message has to be the more general education of people on the facts and on the challenges of Europe today. For some, that might mean taking one of the many excellent European Studies programmes available across the continent’s universities, but for others it might simply mean having access to the basics of how a key part of contemporary governance works.

The agenda of embedding such elements within national educational systems has rather fallen by the wayside of late, largely through fears of propaganda and undermining of national identities, but again this misses the point. Whatever you want from the EU, and the future of Europe more generally, the more you know how things are, the better you will be able to work towards achieving your objectives.

At a time when the future path of our continent’s development is as open as it has been at any point since the end of the Cold War, it is incumbent on all of us – as citizens – to make sure we make our choices in the light of facts and through reasoned debate. That will not be an easy process, but surely it will produce more equitable, more democratic and more durable results than might otherwise occur. Maybe that is the kind of control we should be taking.