“It’s in Britain’s national interest to be in the EU” – it pains me how often we hear that phrase (or words that that effect) in speeches made by UK politicians about the EU. Yet we very seldom question its use.
The need to start to question it, for me at least, has been given new urgency by Douglas Alexander’s EU speech earlier this week (full text here) that mentions ‘national’ 9 times, and ‘democratic’ only once*. Alexander uses phrases like “those of us who see Britain’s national interest as best served within the European Union”.
But what does that actually mean? What is the national interest?
First, there is the notion that – when it comes to negotiating in Brussels – there is something that binds the inhabitants of the United Kingdom together, to want to push for the same thing. That encompasses everything from a Scottish fisherman to a person in retraining in a Welsh valley to a millionaire banker in the City of London. The way UK internal politics works correctly assumes there is little common political ground between these characters, but when we talk about Britain’s relationship with the EU we suddenly assume there is.
I do not reject the notion that there might be some trends between countries – that the British population might be more hostile towards integration, more free-market as opposed to protectionist, more opposed to subsidies, than populations elsewhere. But I would also contend that a banker in the City of London has more interests in common with a banker in Frankfurt than with a fisherman in Scotland. Likewise a Welsh person on a retraining scheme in a post-industrial region has more in common with a French counterpart in the same situation in Lens than with a millionaire banker in the City. Only we never debate EU politics in those terms.
There is then the second issue – that citing national interest in relation to the EU is done in equal measure by both Labour and the Tories (or at least their frontbench) – Cameron’s speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet this week is a case in point. When Cameron says Britain’s membership of the EU is in the national interest, do the words mean the same as when Douglas Alexander says them? Each will have their own interpretation of what that national interest is, but by using the term so frequently across the political spectrum it precludes meaningful debate about the sort of European Union we want. “The national interest is for a more social EU” doesn’t really work.
My third issue is the emotional connection that the phrase “national interest” evokes. It makes a person first think of the nation (and, for all the problems of defining Britishness, there is some emotional connection), and then make the leap to think of the nation in the context of something wider, the EU. With a debate in the UK about the EU that has been antagonistic for more than 30 years, the use of this phrase that encompasses and even emotionally highlights this antagonism makes no sense in framing terms.
I therefore suggest that the term “the national interest” should not be used in speeches by UK politicians about the EU, in the same way as I have argued the pro-European / eurosceptic frame should also be rejected. Politicians instead should articulate the interests of individual citizens, or groups of citizens wherever they are located. The needs of workers, bankers, fishermen, entrepreneurs, public sector workers should be set into an EU context, rather than first of all trying to construct a false notion that all in the UK agree before our politicians speak about the EU.