Brendan O’Neill

A Eurosceptic union is forming across Europe

A Eurosceptic union is forming across Europe
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Of all the barbs fired at us Brexiteers, the one that’s irritated me most is ‘Little Englander’. The suggestion is that pro-EU people are broad-minded Europhiles while Brexiteers are petty nationalists who want to dismantle the Chunnel and while away our days drinking tea and slagging off Germans. It couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, the most wonderful thing about Brexit — glorious, rebellious Brexit — is the new European unity it is forging. Far from giving an English two-fingered salute to the continent, the Brexit bug is helping bring the continent together, uniting peoples who’ve had a gutful of the technocrats.

The overthrow of Matteo Renzi is 2016’s latest ballot-box revolt against the new managerial elites. Protesting way too much, observers insist the vote against Renzi’s proposed reforms had little to do with the EU. Please. Yes, the referendum was narrowly concerned with the role of the Senate, and with giving more power to — guess who? Yep, Renzi: a new law would grant the Italian executive greater clout at the expense of parliamentary deliberation.

But the Italian people knew very well that Brussels was backing Renzi, and that Renzi had become a kind of younger, better-looking stand-in for hapless Hollande in Merkel’s Brussels-loving oligarchical circle. And they know Beppe Grillo’s clownish Five Star Movement, which wants a referendum on the euro, is likely to be a major beneficiary of the beautiful turmoil they unleashed. And still they sent Renzi packing, because bruising Brussels is what European people do these days. We love it.

One of the most striking things about Renzi’s referendum campaigning was the way he tried to paint himself as willing to stand up to the EU. He had a pop at EU austerity measures. He outlined a plan to save one of Italy’s oldest banks without following the EU rulebook on such matters. But it was all spectacularly unconvincing. Not least because, as one report put it, ‘Brussels refuse[d] to play along’ and continued to throw its weight behind Renzi, knowing he is fundamentally a friend of the EU, unlike Grillo and others in this ‘increasingly Eurosceptic country’. That Renzi felt the need to pose as vaguely, mildly, Euro-critical is telling: politicians, even EU-backing ones, know that anyone who cosies up too closely to Brussels is likely to get Brexited.

So the people of Italy join the people of Britain in rejecting the new bureaucrats. Benvenuto! And of course us Brexiteers were inspired by the early revolts of the Dutch and French against the EU Constitution, in 2005, and by the fighting Irish, who rejected both the Nice Treaty, in 2001, and the Lisbon Treaty, in 2008. In turn, we Brits, French, Dutch, Italian and Irish have emboldened Euroscepticism elsewhere. In Greece, so vilely mistreated by Brussels, 71 percent now have an unfavourable view of the EU. In Spain it's on the cusp of 50 percent. EU favourability has fallen dramatically over the past year — by 17 percentage points in France; 16 in Spain. Behold the true unifying dynamic in Europe right now: Euroscepticism.

It’s a new European union. A union of scepticism, a union of people tired of technocracy who long for greater democratic control. The political class and many in the media grimace at the Brexit term ‘Taking back control’, thinking it speaks to the rise of a base neo-nationalism, when in truth it expresses a democratic yearning across Europe for more influence in politics, and for fewer filters and layers and commissions designed to dilute public opinion. This is not to say that all these peaceful revolts are the same, or equally good. Brexit — open, sceptical, confident Brexit — is nothing like the Freedom Party of Austria, which is fearful and often ugly. The French, Dutch and Irish revolts against Brussels were less complicated than the Italian revolt, because they were clearer expressions of anti-EU rebellion and no Grillo-style party milked them. Some revolts will go in a good direction, others in a dodgy one. But what binds them together is people’s hope that politics can be reclaimed from the starched committee rooms and courts of the technocratic class, and be brought crashing back down to the rowdy, wonderful court of public opinion.

I’ve never felt so connected with European people. The EU is a union only of elites. It isn’t internationalism, it’s escapism: an institution designed to allow politicos and lawyers and well-fed activists to do politics far from the madding crowds of their own nation states. It’s the cosmopolitanism of contempt, motored by distrust in the moral and political capacities of ordinary people. The new European union, the coming together around Euroscepticism, is a far truer cosmopolitanism. It’s an expression of trust in ourselves, and by extension in our cousins across the continent. Its opposition to Brussels translates into a faith in ordinary people, be they French, Greek, Italian, Hungarian or British. It has great potential to bring solidarity to Europe, if only sniffy observers would stop defaming it.

So the EU has brought Europeans together — in opposition to its own haughty, illiberal style. Eurosceptism could be the glue of a new politics and a new continent, one that values living, breathing, complicated democracy over the dead-hand of clapped-out technocrats and self-styled experts.