Jul 4 2013

L’enfer, c’est les autres: othering in Eurosceptic discourse

By Simon Usherwood

Euroscepticism-EUIn recent years, euroscepticism has become an ever-more visible part of the process of European integration, from the decline in public support to the pronouncements of political parties and governments. This scepticism is clearly wide-ranging and diverse, drawing on the full spectrum of political and social positions: it is hard to think of an ideological standpoint that doesn’t have something critical to say about the European Union. Self-evidently, euroscepticism isn’t an ideology itself, but rather a site for other ideologies to express themselves, often for reasons of political profiling or competition.

Often this simple fact is obscured by the way that both European and national elites have treated scepticism, as a marginal and inconsequential position, which creates a false impression of commonality of substance. But while the substance is not common, the tools of scepticism often are – a similarity that becomes apparent when one considers the recurrent use of othering in sceptical discourse. 

Othering is simply the creation of an antithesis, an ‘other’, both to characterise and caricature it. In particular, by creating an ‘other’, you also necessarily create a ‘self’: put differently, a ‘them’ needs an ‘us’. What we see with eurosceptics is that their notion of ‘us’ undergoes an important shift around the time of the Maastricht treaty in the early 1990s, with some deep ramifications.

Before Maastricht, sceptics – relatively rare though they were – tended to place themselves in the middle of a series of overlapping identities: themselves (as individuals or a group), their country and ‘Europe’. Their strategy of othering was to place the then European Community as a distinct and marginal identity, without legitimacy to overlap fully with ‘Europe’. This allowed them to connect their position and their rhetoric to the international level – both in Europe and more widely.

To take just one example, Margaret Thatcher could talk as she did in her 1988 Bruges speech about the EC as “one manifestation of that European identity, but it is not the only one.” Even if most of the language in her speech was about “we British”, she did explicitly challenge the EC’s status, charging it with heterodox behaviour: “it is ironic that just when those countries such as the Soviet Union…are learning that success depends on dispersing power and decisions away from the centre, some in the Community seem to want to move in the opposite direction.” With such an approach, it is then unsurprising that she concluded by calling for “us” to regain control of both the EC and ‘Europe’. 

However, the arrival of the European Union with the Maastricht treaty changed this fundamentally. While sceptics still identified themselves with their country, ‘Europe’ became highly contested: the Union was henceforth seen as the dominant expression of ‘Europe’, closing down the space for the sceptics to use it. Mundanely, we see this in the proliferation of the ‘euro-‘ prefix to pretty much anything one can think of, as well as the name of the single currency itself.

The language post-Maastricht is that of threat. From Viktor Orban’s statement (in March last year) that Hungary would ‘not become a colony’, to the endless confusion of the ECJ and the ECHR, ‘Europe’ is no longer a safe rhetorical space. In the UK, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) typifies the resulting sense of marginality best, when they talk in their 2010 manifesto of how “We will no longer be governed by an undemocratic and autocratic European Union or ruled by its unelected bureaucrats, commissioners, multiple presidents and judges.”  Even when there is push-back on this – as with the right-wing Jean-Pierre Chevènement during the 2005 French referendum on the Constitutional treaty, “A French ‘no’ to the ‘European constitution’ would not be a ‘no’ to Europe, but a republican ‘no’ to the abandonment of popular sovereignty” – this has not stopped the process.

The result is that ‘Europe’ as a frame of reference becomes problematised as an identification point for sceptics, and indeed makes it harder for them to challenge critiques and attacks on them being either nationalistic or even xenophobic. Moreover, sceptics become more and more bound to buy into the EU’s model of identification and hence define themselves as the ‘other’. Whereas pre-Maastricht it was the EC that was in this position, its (apparently) sudden increase in powers made it less a side-show to more general international cooperation and more of an existential threat.

Two main points arise from this.

Firstly, it highlights the mutability of frames and the power of language. We might reflect on how this process has helped to underpin the embedding of the integration process among publics and the way this creates a logic of naturalness to the Union.

Secondly, it returns us to the starting point, namely the diversity of euroscepticism. If there is to be a meaningful engagement with sceptics, as I would argue is necessary for the Union to have any future, then we need to understand how this shift in othering has conditioned both sides’ thinking and their sense of being. Jean-Paul Sartre’s idea that it is the things we detest that make us is one that finds a very practical application here.


This article was first published at Open Democracy on 3 July 2013


About the author

Dr. Simon Usherwood – University of Surrey
Dr Simon Usherwood is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Deputy Head of the School of Politics, University of Surrey. After study at the College of Europe and the LSE’s European Institute, his work has focused on euroscepticism, both in the UK and more widely across the EU. He is coordinator of the UACES Collaborative research Network on Euroscepticism and co-author of The European Union: A Very Short Introduction (OUP 2007).


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