It’s a label I dislike, and not just for the obvious reasons; but it’s the label that has stuck, so let’s be clear what we mean by it when we use it. Here’s my understanding of the term:
A eurosceptic is someone who wants less European Union. It’s an existential thing. There are shades of grey: a eurosceptic might be opposed to his or her country being a member of the EU; or they might think that the EU should be watered down in some way; or they might want the abolition of the entire project. But, generally speaking, we can presumably agree that a eurosceptic is looking for less EU.
A eurosceptic is NOT someone who opposes, dislikes, is unhappy with, hates a current EU policy. You might disagree with the CAP; you might hate the common visa policy; you might think that the EU’s environmental legislation is much too weak; you might think that the EU’s working time directive is an outrageous burden on business. These are not existential arguments against the EU; they are arguments against current EU policies. Holding those views does not make you a eurosceptic, though of course you might *also* be a eurosceptic.
The two concepts get muddled all the time. Why is that? We don’t see this confusion in national politics. Most politically literate people don’t call for the abolition of national government from Westminster because they oppose cuts to benefits, or the Iraq War, or the stealth privatisation of the NHS, or gay marriage. If there’s an issue in national politics which bothers you, you might go out and vote for someone who agrees with you; or you might write to your MP; or you might go on a demo; or you might even get involved in party politics yourself. But you’re not usually a UK-sceptic.
Clearly, this is part of the EU’s problem. We need to ask ourselves how we can develop a greater sense of engagement by citizens in the European tier of government and politics. The fact that the EU’s citizens don’t feel sufficiently engaged to seek to influence policy, the fact that they conflate the policy of the current Commission with the entire edifice of the European Union itself, is a real challenge. It might in fact be a legitimate ground for euroscepticism. But the policies themselves – the CAP, the austerity, the fisheries, the working time directive… these are not legitimate grounds for euroscepticism.
Ask yourself this: if the EU were to ditch a policy you hate, and introduce a policy you love, enforcing it throughout the EU and using its international muscle to establish it as a global norm, would you still think that the EU is a bad thing? If not, then you’re probably not a eurosceptic.
A major flaw problem with the UK debate is the misuse of terminology. Skeptics are people who challenge assumptions and like evidence in their policy. This is a position a commendable position. Logically “Euroskeptics” should be people who are skeptical of European policy and given European policy is quite a broad area most of the population should be Euroskeptic to some degree. Meanwhile the opposite of Euroskeptics are the Euro-enthusiasts (based on these simple definitions) should have a blind love of all things Europe. The net effect is that there is a complete asymmetry in the UK debate and people who are not deeply concerned by the issues will probably tend to side with the skeptics..
The only way the terms of the debate will change is by accepting “legitimate Euroskepticism” and differentiating from the completely irrational EUphobia. Most people are not particularly ideological about Europe and I suspect would quickly recoil from the thought of as “phobes”. This would enable a more sensible debate about how the UK best engages with Europe.