The EU and the Ghost in the Machine

How Brexiteers constructed an EU bogeyman from thin air.

The use of the EU as a bogeyman in British politics is no new phenomenon. In 2003 — when the EU was in its infancy — the Daily Express warned that the EU wanted to ‘ban playtime’ under new safety regulations. The story was false, of course, on many levels as the guidelines which apparently threatened playgrounds were optional, not overly-strict, and suggested by a non-EU body (the European Committee for Standardisation). Politicians also use the EU as a scapegoat, dodging legitimate criticism by passing it onto the EU, as do many members of the general public. For example, EU immigrants are often blamed for negative effects on the British economy through overpopulation, refusing to take up jobs, and relying on state benefits. Aside from the fact that this claim is (unsurprisingly) factually incorrect, Nigel Farage found himself somewhat caught out when Femi Oluwole, a political activist, pointed out to him that under EU Directive 2004/38/EC (the Citizens’ Rights Directive), any EU immigrant can be ‘expelled’ if they become ‘an unreasonable burden on the social assistance of the host Member State’. I could go on with more and more examples detailing the use of false information, sophistry, and fear-mongering from Brexiteers in an attempt to make the EU look scary but I’d like to take a step back and look at how such a scary monster can be constructed in the first place and to do that I’ll need the help of Gilbert Ryle.

Gilbert Ryle (1900–1976) was a British philosopher and Oxford professor who coined the phrase “the ghost in the machine.” The phrase was a part of his critique of Descartes’ Substance Dualism (known as Cartesian Dualism) which he argued committed a category mistake. This was because it conflated two categories which had no right being conflated. In the same way that looking at all of a university’s facilities and asking ‘but where’s the university?’ is nonsensical and misunderstands what a ‘university’ is, looking at the physical body and asking ‘Okay, so where’s the mind?’ commits the same error. It’s looking, as Ryle puts it, for a ghost in the machine. So, how does this relate to Brexit and the EU? Well, as we all know, the UK is a member state of the EU and has been since its inception in 1993 and prior to that since 1973 as a member of the European Economic Community (EEC). However, if an alien were to come to Earth and consume only anti-EU British rhetoric for a year, they might well think that the EU is some foreign government or country which seeks the destruction of the UK at all costs. Indeed, in many articles supporting Brexit, the UK seems to be a victim of its atrocities — “UK to be forced to adopt continental two-pin plug”, “2-for-1 bargains to be banned [by EU]”, “EU wants to BAN your photos of the London Eye and the Angel of the North” — rather than a part of it. This is no mistake on the part of tabloids and politicians alike, who seek to portray the EU as a set of faceless elites who are undemocratic to the core.

The EU Parliament’s hemicycle

In 2016, Stewart Jackson (the MP for Peterborough) argued that ‘the EU has set its face against the UK controlling its own borders’. At first, this statement (however wrong) seems to at least make sense. However, under closer examination, the statement is a clear example of the EU bogeyman at play. The UK is a part of the EU, so the idea that the EU doesn’t care about the UK’s borders is strange. The sentiment is not a contradiction in terms for the same reason that the idea of the UK leaving the EU is not irrational (the UK’s membership is a synthetic, not analytic, property of the EU). However, this assertion completely separates the EU and the UK. The UK is one of the three big members of the EU, the others being Germany and France, and has the third highest number of MEPs in the European Parliament with 73 MEPs, nearly 10% of the members. This is where the Category Mistake seems to come in. A distinction has been made between the ‘EU’ and the ‘UK’ where it appears none is justified. German politicians (usually right wing) have also blamed the tyranny of the EU for a variety of problems, despite Germany having the highest number of MEPs. Where the problem becomes most apparent is when people say that ‘The EU doesn’t care about its member states’. This is very nearly a direct contradiction in terms. Not only does the EU care about its member states, but the EU is the member states. In the same way that Ryle argues looking for a mind inside a physical body is a category mistake, searching for some separate EU identity which is completely detached from its member states simply doesn’t make sense.

Why is this important? This matters because it’s completely reframed much of the discussion surrounding the EU. Instead of looking at the EU as an international, economic, and political union of which we are a part, it’s often presented as an ‘other’. But this simply isn’t the case. When the controversial Article 13 (now 11) legislation was voted for on the 26th of March, many people used it as an argument for Brexit. But UK MEPs voted — albeit narrowly — in favour of the legislation and since 1999, the UK has only voted against EU legislation 2% of the time. Therefore, when the Daily Mail raves about EU legislation harming the UK, chances are that we actually voted in favour of it. When they say ‘The EU is harming the UK’, they’re also saying ‘The UK is harming the UK.’ And this is precisely the subtle nature of discussion surrounding the EU and the way it’s been derailed by Eurosceptics. By abstracting the identity of the EU to such an extent that the UK seems to play no part in it, the Union seems much more like its own sovereign nation imposing sanctions on the UK, rather than a political union of which the United Kingdom is a part.

This concept formed a large part of the argument that the EU is an undemocratic organization full of bureaucrats who don’t care about the UK. The phrasing almost makes it sound like the EU is a company, not a group of countries. And as is the case with many claims from the Leave camp, it’s just simply not the case. The European Parliament is directly democratic, even if most people choose not to vote in it, the European Council comprises the elected heads of state, the Council of the EU are appointed by these elected heads as are the members of the EU Commission. So, no, the EU is not ‘undemocratic’. At worst, the EU relies too heavily on indirect democracy.

When Brexiteers, such as Nigel Farage or Jacob Rees-Mogg, look at the complexity of the EU and its construction (which is a union of 28 states), they commit Ryle’s category mistake by trying to find some scary, vague, and threatening EU identity. Until we talk of the EU not as its own essence but as a culmination of members (one of which is the UK), the discourse surrounding the EU is doomed to fall into an ‘us vs. them’ mentality which allows misinformation, xenophobia, racism, and general hatred to thrive.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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