Reluctance to engage with the British conservatives in a debate over EU reform could represent a missed opportunity, for Europe and for science.
Last week, I attended a conference in London hosted by the think tank Open Europe. Billed as a Pan-European conference for EU reform, the event was dominated by conservative ministers from the UK and a handful from other EU member states.
The event began with a speech from UK chancellor George Osborne that epitomised the black and white nature under which the discussion on reform was initiated last January: “Reform, or we’re out,” he implied. But beyond this, I observed a nuanced debate between pro-reformers about the benefits and constraints of the EU and how it might do things better, with the majority supporting the UK staying in the EU.
To set things straight: I am not a conservative, I support the fundamental premise of the EU as an instrument of peace, economic progress and political reform, and I do not want the UK to leave the Union.
But I also see nothing wrong with a widely engaging debate on the changes—big or small—that could make the EU better, involving all political parties, even if the premise on which the debate was initiated might have ruffled some feathers.
Europe is not struggling because it is anti-competitive and anti-science, as George Osborne claimed, but because of the banking crisis. And whilst European research is not to blame, it has certainly felt the effects: as many as 11 member states have seen a decrease in their higher education funding of more than 5 per cent since 2008, according to the European University Association.
Some of the changes being proposed by the reform campaign could benefit researchers significantly. At the London conference, participants played a game to reform the EU budget, suggesting how the allocations under the €1 trillion seven-year spending plan might be improved. The breakdown that won the prize of ‘best budget’ allocated nearly all of the money to cross-border R&D spending, with the remainder for cohesion in the poorest regions.
Such a swinging shift is unrealistic. But the underlying message is clear: many reformers want more spending on R&D.
Another major facet of the conservative’s agenda is “more power to member states”: allowing member states to make their own decisions on issues they are best placed to rule on. At present, MEPs and Brussels officials spend months ruling on directives that are then torn apart by opt-outs and alterations at the national level. So why not decide which issues should be European, and which should be national, without this messy in-between?
A debate about what constitutes a national issue and what constitutes an EU one could bring some much-needed clarity to Europe’s policymaking. What’s more, by leaving national issues at the national level, it would allow the Brussels institutions more time to focus on real Pan-European agendas—including the European Research Area.
Furthermore, engaging the conservatives in debate would allow their opponents to address a fundamental error in the right-wing argument: that is, trying to evaluate the EU against a perfect model of democracy, which national governments are even further from achieving. Idealism, rather than realism, has proved to be a highly effective weapon in the rhetoric heralding the failings of the EU, and it must be countered.
Some industries have grasped the opportunity to engage, with the British Bankers’ Association calling for closer ties with Brussels, and the UK car industry voicing concern about an EU exit. And there have been murmurings amongst scientists and research organisations about the potential damage to Britain if it leaves the EU, given that the UK is one of the most successful recipients of European research funding.
But some politicians from outside the conservatives seem scared to join in the debate, for fear of being branded a Eurosceptic. Others are worried about agreeing to alterations to the EU treaties, in case they are opening the door to the abyss. And the remainder seem to be treating the conservative’s campaign as they would a naughty child: ignore them, and they might shut up.
But let’s have some faith in the strengths of the European project, and the widespread support on its fundamental reason for existing. Let’s start a positive and forward-looking discussion on the Europe that we want to see in 20 years time. The EU is going to change regardless—so let’s not leave it only to the conservatives to determine how.