"Save Our Pound"
The Economic and Finance Meeting (Ecofin) in York this week would seem at first glance to be a rather dry affair arousing all the excitement of an accountants' convention. It is thus perhaps rather surprising that it became the scene of a tumultuous protest.
Hundreds of protesters outside the meeting rallied to damn EMU and Brussels in general. They burned the EU flag, and they waved banners saying "Save Our Pound" - appealing to the collective national "we" in an attempt to whip up nationalist support against "their" Euro. They even hired a plane to fly overhead towing a banner denouncing the single currency. Superficially this protest seemed to be without justification because the current Labour government has ruled out Britain joining EMU for the life of this parliament.
The strong protest against EMU and Brussels can be explained by a number of recent factors. On the one hand, British dis-satisfaction with the EU centres around a perception that Brussels is deliberately mishandling the BSE crisis to protect continental farmers at the expense of British farmers. The announcement this week of the "Agenda 2000" document was also a blow to many in Britain because while it may open the door to Eastern enlargement, it will certainly close the door on millions of pounds worth of regional funds which depressed regions in the UK receive from Brussels.
But the cause of the recent protests goes deeper. Many people in the UK - dare I say most? - simply do not feel European. This is clear from the public discourse about Europe. When people talk about "Europe" they mean continental Europe. They talk about "travelling to Europe" obviously showing that they do not feel themselves to already be living within it. British people do not identify themselves with the continent, and they do not trust Brussels to run British affairs even though some of those Eurocrats in Brussels are British.
Arguments for EMU are many. The business community obviously likes the idea because it would, among other things, mean fewer worries about exchange rate fluctuations. The wider public generally sees the advantage of not having to change money while travelling, but still, the British public, like the people of several countries in the EU, remains sceptical about EMU.
People are not really concerned with the rational arguments about exchange rate fluctuations and currency exchange while abroad, however. Their opposition to the Euro and to the EU in general is not concerned with rational arguments; their rejection to Europe is visceral. There is a deep feeling of trepidation at the coming monumental changes, and British people are not really psychologically ready for them. There is a widespread distrust of the whole European enterprise.
The ministers in Brussels are moving too fast and without the consent of the people. It is interesting to note that the Czech Republic exhibits the same dichotomy in public debate between internationalist pro-Europeans and those people who are more suspicious of that which is not "na". Somewhere and sometime soon, these two conflicting opinions will have to come to an understanding both in the Czech Republic and in other European countries.
That understanding can only come about if there is greater democracy. The European Union needs an injection of democracy very badly. Decisions in Brussels should stop being made behind closed doors, for example, and the popularly elected European Parliament should be given greater power than the appointed officials who presently run the show in Brussels. The oft-discussed "democratic deficit" of the EU has got to finally be addressed if the gung-ho pro-European elites and the suspicious wider public are ever to start a meaningful public dialogue about their differences. In short, the EU politicians should start being accountable to the citizens directly.
On Saturday, the British Independent newspaper ran a long editorial piece which called for a new European constitution to connect power-holders with citizens. A new constitutional framework should confirm the people as the foundation of power in Europe directly, not just via their national governments as is now the case. The resulting increased influence of public sentiments would probably slow down the European project somewhat, but in the end it will be time well spent, as the resulting EU would be stronger. The point is not to try to create a new European identity, but to create a new "citizens' Europe". It would be a Union which its citizens could actually believe in, because they would feel its structures to be answerable to them.
All this just proves that entering the EU is not the end of anything for the people of Central and Eastern Europe. Once in the EU, the citizens of the Czech Republic will help to create the future of the Union. Hopefully they will see that this injection of democracy is necessary and demand reform of the EU so that it is more responsive to its citizens.