Lord Patten Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Europe and the World: Conversation with The Right Honorable Lord Patten of Barnes, CH; Chancellor, Oxford University, former European Union Commissioner for External Affairs; January 30, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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National Identity and European Union

You quote Churchill from a 1948 speech where he says, "This process must be viewed as a gradual assumption by all nations concerned of the larger sovereignty, which alone can protect their diverse and distinctive customs and the characteristics of their national tradition." So, that's the other side of this that you have to deal with, that is, as the people you're bringing on board participate in this process of union and enlargement, they feel that their identities and their histories and traditions are not threatened.

Yes. It's the most difficult aspect of the whole enterprise, and it's the one which causes the most problems in my own country, where there is a rather ludicrous fear that we're creating in Europe a super-state, or "the country Europe," to use a phrase much used on the right in British politics. It's simply not true. No national member the European Union has seen its nationhood diluted. The Poles are as Polish as ever, the French -- look at President Chirac, bless him! -- are as French as ever, we're as British as ever. But we have agreed, in order to protect de facto sovereignty, to sacrifice some de jure sovereignty.

In Britain we have a problem sometimes distinguishing between those things. But to give you an example of what it means, Norway has chosen to stay outside the European Union; nevertheless, the European Union is its biggest market, and in order to sell into the European Union it has to follow our rules and regulations. So, Norwegian ministers have all the additional sovereignty which goes with not coming to Brussels to make the decisions which they then actually implement more rapidly than any EU member state. It's an absurdity. There is a serious problem here, and in my judgment it's the most interesting in political science. As I said earlier, people feel their natural loyalty and attachment to the institutions of nation states, even while knowing that nation states can't protect them in the way they used to.

So, we have to cooperate, and we establish institutions to manage the shared sovereignty. But people don't feel the same enthusiasm for the institutions that manage the shared sovereignty as they do for their national parliaments, or civil services, or judicial systems, and that does create a real problem about accountability. There is no European electorate, there is no pan-European demos, there are electorates in individual countries but there isn't a European electorate which provides that sense of accountability, which people understand and they look for.

In your career you were a member of Parliament, and as Governor General of Hong Kong you put your ear to the ground to understand what was happening. It seems that the Commission, and other parts of the organization of the European Union, have failed in winning popular support, if we look at the recent votes on the constitution. What is the problem here? Is it that the institutions for hearing people's concerns are not adequately developed, or that local politicians manipulate sentiment? What is the issue?

It's certainly true that local politicians like to blame the European institutions, which they themselves have created, whenever anything goes wrong, whether it's the fault of the European institutions or not. Most of the problems we face in Europe, like low economic growth in some countries, are the fault of national governments, not anything at the European level. But there are another couple of reasons which explain the unpopularity of parts of the European project. First of all, there is a disconnect between European rhetoric and what we are actually trying to do. There are still people who talk rather wispily, rather vacuously, about ever-greater European integration. That's for the birds. I think that integration has gone about as far as the market will bear, and that the name of the game now is doing what we've already agreed to do together more competently.

As a British politician I didn't fight every election with people saying to me, "Okay, now give us the vision for the next stage in the creation of the United Kingdom." What people wanted was assurance that one would manage the country's affairs competently and keep the peace. I think we should stop hunting for new ways of launching integration projects and recognize that the main task of the European institutions, for the time being, is to run things effectively and competently.

There is, second, a European parliament, which does a big job, and in many ways an important job, but it's a virtual parliament and it's divorced from national politics. People don't know who their European parliamentarians are, by and large. They are European parliamentarians in large measure and can't wait for the opportunity of trying to become national rather than European politicians, in debates, in virtual languages, and you never really can follow a debate very easily through interpreters. So, this problem of linking decision making with electorates is a real cause of confusion in the European Union, and it's one of the reasons why, as I said, I think that the process of integration has gone about as far as it could.

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