Status anxiety

My day as the only Eurosceptic at the finishing school for Europe’s elite

At Sciences Po in Paris, I was listened to with polite amusement, but almost no one took the threat of Brexit seriously

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

28 May 2016

9:00 AM

I was in Paris last week to take part in an EU referendum debate at Sciences Po, a French university that specialises in international relations. It’s not an exaggeration to describe Sciences Po as a finishing school for Europe’s political elite. Twenty-eight heads of state have studied or taught there, its graduates include five of the last six French presidents and the current dean is Enrico Letta, a former prime minister of Italy. My fellow panellists included Ana Palacio, the Spanish minister of foreign affairs from 2002 to 2004, and Hubert Vedrine, the French minister of foreign affairs from 1997 to 2002. I think it’s safe to say I was the only Eurosceptic in the room.

I was listened to with polite amusement, but almost no one took the threat of Brexit seriously. For them, the advantages of staying in are so obvious that they found it difficult to engage with anyone who didn’t agree. When I pointed out EU deficiencies such as its lack of transparency, the fact that laws can be introduced only by unelected European Commissioners and the widespread corruption that has confounded its auditors for 21 years, the panellists nodded in agreement. Yes, yes, no one’s saying it’s perfect. But on balance it’s been such a success that only a swivel-eyed loon would want to leave.

I did my best to shake them out of their complacency by pointing out the revolt against political elites that’s gathering steam across the Continent, with numerous anti-EU parties on the left and right chalking up victories. In France, the Front National took 25 per cent of the popular vote in the 2014 European elections, putting them in first place, while Syriza did well enough in last year’s Greek general election to form the government. The Sweden Democrats had 13 per cent of the vote in the 2014 Swedish general election, the True Finns won 38 seats in the 2014 Finnish parliamentary elections and the AfD received 24 per cent of the vote in Saxony-Anhalt in this year’s German regional elections. Wasn’t that cause for concern?

Hubert Vedrine, who now runs a public affairs firm specialising in foreign, economic and geopolitical affairs, responded by pointing out that no anti-EU party had won more than 40 per cent of the vote in a European election and they usually got much less. Unfortunately, this was a week before the Austrian presidential election in which the Freedom party’s Norbert Hofer came within a whisker of defeating his Green opponent, with 49.7 per cent. I wonder how the panel would have reacted to that?

My view is that sooner or later an anti-EU party or politician will gain power in a European state that isn’t an economic basket case and that will trigger a crisis in the EU. The success of Syriza in Greece’s two elections last year was just about containable, because Greece is economically dependent on the goodwill of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. But if Hofer had won that would have been harder to manage, because Austria is the 14th richest country in the world. Indeed, he may yet become chancellor in 2018. What if he refuses to accept Austria’s EU quota of refugees, then refuses to pay the fine? That would directly challenge the EU’s legitimacy.

This goes to the heart of the EU’s problem, which is that the political elite in each member state has transferred decision-making power across a range of important areas from their national parliaments to various undemocratic institutions in Brussels, effectively disenfranchising their electorates. In some cases, this transfer of sovereignty took place with the consent of their voters, in some cases not, but an increasing number of Europeans now want their democratic rights back. They’re not happy that unelected officials in Brussels, over whom they have no control, are making decisions they profoundly disagree with, such as insisting they take their fair share of asylum seekers or accept brutal austerity measures.

Over the past half-century, many Europeans entered into a Faustian pact: they gave up their rights as free people in return for prosperity and security. But the devil hasn’t kept his side of the deal and Dr Faustus is getting restless. How will people react when the EU tells them the pact is irreversible? My guess is, not well, and whether Britain votes to remain or to leave, the EU cannot survive in its present, undemocratic form. Unfortunately, the grands fromages from ages at Sciences Po seemed unconvinced of this.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator

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Show comments
  • commenteer

    Take a look at Poland, Toby. It’ll be EU tanks in the streets soon if the ‘wrong’ governments get elected.

    • Anthony

      The EU don’t have tanks and, if Poland really wants to leave, that would be fine for most of us given what they received in funding.

      • post_x_it

        The EU doesn’t have tanks (or an army) yet, but is furiously working on it.

  • Frank

    Toby, you say that Greece is dependent upon the EU, the ECB and the IMF. Another way of looking at this situation is that the EU is staggeringly dependent on Greece. If Greece walks away from its debts, the ECB will be sunk, the Euro will be valueless and the EU will almost certainly collapse.
    The Science Po has always been very up its own derriere as is the French way, there is probably an interesting story to be told about the Vichy years of the Science Po!

  • lurv & compassion

    Is there a reason to take the threat [sic] of Brexit seriously?

  • njt55

    Group think at its worst. They should read/watch “The Abilene Paradox” which shows how destructive such complacent orthodoxy can be.

  • Jojje 3000

    European anti-establishment political parties are not necessary anti EU,

    • antoncheckout

      Many of them aren’t even anti-establishment. Merely waiting to raise taxes and scoop up the taxpayers’ money themselves.

    • post_x_it

      Even Syriza is pro-EU, now work that one out.

  • Chazmania

    I wouldn’t call Sciences Po the finishing school for the European Elite. It’s not even the finishing school for the French Elite – that’s the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA), where virtually every French President has studied. I’m afraid old Tobes has rather absorbed the guff they sell to persuade speakers to come to these events. If he’s looking for the finishing school for the European Elite, look no further than the College of Europe in Bruges, or the European University Institute in Florence.

    Also, if he’s wondering why they were looking at him like everything he was saying was bonkers, it’s because from the outside the UK’s EU-oriented sadomasochism is seen as both bizarre and wrongheaded in equal measure. They don’t take Brexit seriously in the same way that you don’t take a drunk toddler with a gun seriously: even if he could get the safety off, he’s unlikely to hit anything terribly important, other than perhaps himself!

    Also #2, the EU is as reasonably democratic as you’d expect it to be. The European Parliament is directly elected in fair elections, the European Council is entirely member state’s governments, and both have equal say on legislation. The Commission is the civil service and, to be frank, do we elect our civil service in the UK? No, we don’t. And the whole boondoggle has a staff count that doesn’t exceed that of a mid-size UK council.

    • Davedeparis

      A precondition for getting into ENA is to graduate from Sci-Po. I’ve taught for years at Sci-Po and yes being a true believer is a pre-condition for getting and when they encounter a genuinely different idea it does tend to hit the poor dears for six. They also all (every single last one) share a complete contempt for the democratic process that they take as completely axiomatic. The European is a toothless assembly that makes Hong Kong look democratic. The Council of Europe has no democratic mandate. If the EU is democratic by your lights then we have very different ideas about what constitutes democracy.

    • A real liberal

      I thought you were serious for a ‘mo. That’s referendum paranoia for you!

    • antoncheckout

      The European Commission has 32,966 members of staff (EC HR figures 2016)
      No ‘mid-size[d] UK council’ employs that many. And by sheer reasonably democratic coincidence, 16.4% of all EC employees are Belgian. 11.7% are Italian, 9,.7% are from France, 7.2% are from Spain, 6.7% from Germany.
      3.5% of the EC staff recruited from the UK, fewer than from Greece, or Poland, or Romania.

      • Chazmania

        The UK alone has a government level Civil Service of nearly half a million! HMRC alone is 56,000. The EU is hardly overburdened with staff. No doubt there are more Belgians employed: a lot of them fill the more clerical and admin role at junior levels. I’m sure you [if you were in that “grade”, so to speak] would take a job which allows you to be a driver but earn net what the top 10% of the country earns in Belgium. I don’t pretend the system is perfect, but it’s also not that expensive given its relatively small size.

        The fact that the UK is less well represented is a symptom of the lack of interest, not the illness itself. It seems [and I say this as a Brit abroad] that a lot of the young UK people who would be perfect for the jobs here – many of which aren’t well paid in the grand scheme of things but are considerably better paid than the local wages – aren’t interested in coming over to do the jobs [and moreover, I say this as a young Brit abroad]. It is a problem that UK people don’t want to come over and work here, but it’s something that could be solved and give us influence; it is not something that should be used as a reason to get out of the EU.

        • antoncheckout

          You claimed: “And the whole boondoggle has a staff count that doesn’t exceed that of a mid-size UK council.”
          I pointed out that no ‘mid-sized UK local council’ employs 32,966 members of staff. An undeniable fact.
          You are also now confusing the (already large) number of Brussels EC staff with the much larger employee payroll of the EU as an organization.
          10,000 employees of the EU – one in five – are paid more than the Prime Minister, whose salary is £142,000.
          It is possible that so few British graduates want to work in the EU for the same reason that we all shunned it in the 1970s and 1980s – because they smell the stink of its pork-barreling and self-serving materialism, hypocrisy and mediocrity. And perhaps they can see that any increase in Britain’s non-existent influence would be a poor trade-off for parliamentary sovereignty and the rule of Common Law.

    • mohdanga

      How did the UK manage to survive in all the years it wasn’t a member?

    • mohdanga

      “Also #2, the EU is as reasonably democratic as you’d expect it to be…”. You mean democratic like this?


    The EU is definately not democratic there are four members subsidising 24 noncontributing countries the Unelected Commision makes the laws which are not debated as there are so many on a bad day 70 items can be voted on and you have so many seconds to press Yes No or Abstain which explains some of the lunacy eminating from them. Junker is a nobody chosen for that reason who will do as he is told without thinking. Possibly lacking the power of thought. Communism by another name.

  • Pretty_Polly


    My name is David Cameron of Brussels and Panama and my aim is to destroy Britain as you know and love it.

    That is why I have admitted over 750,000 migrants and asylum seekers in the last 12 months alone, why I support Turkey’s entry into the EU and why I have done virtually nothing to stop illegals entering the country and remaining forever. I will of course repeat these policies this year and every year during my premiership.

    Up and down the country, I am told that my plans are working perfectly as people find they are becoming ‘Strangers Where They Live’ and I am delighted my Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, has told me that our towns and cities are being enrichingly ‘swamped with immigrants’

    As the ‘Heir to Blair’ and Blairmore, I am proud to be continuing the pro immigration policies adopted by my close friends in the Labour Party and to be able to develop such ideas to extinguish ‘Britishness’ wherever it may be found. That is why I have abolished many of the planning rules in order to build huge anonymous new towns and cities in what was the monocultural and unenriched English countryside

    I will soon be holding the long awaited confirmation of my views and opinions that Britain should remain an EU member forever and I will personally ensure that the Remain campaign is full of lies, threats and propaganda to obtain the highly desirable Remain outcome, thereby wiping the floor with a blonde haired mop.

    As you will understand from the foregoing, I am extremely excited about the forthcoming abolition of Britain and ‘Britishness’ by my friends in the European Union who have assured me that a new name has already been decided for these very small inconsequential islands..

    Consequently, to further the re-writing of British history and the destruction of British traditions, they have chosen ‘EU Sector North West’ which must now be written below your postcode or your mail will no longer be delivered.

    God Save The President of the EU Commission ! Rule Jean Claude Juncker !

    Yours sincerely

    David Cameron

    Governor General EU NW – Designate.

  • Old School Liberal

    While the groupthink is probably pretty strong with these kinds of people, there is also the fact that they don’t need to care. Democracy is an inconvenience to them. As you say Toby, before too long a country will elect a genuinely eurosceptic government, hopefully with the balls not to be bought off. Given that we were the first country to establish parliamentary democracy, you’d hope we would be the first to leave this sorry project. It would be a glorious day if we did.

  • David Beard

    Toby Young not being taken seriously again. It’s not fair you know.

  • rtj1211

    Look mate, the way you stay in power is to decry anything for as long as it’s not the winning horse, then jump ship at just the time that allows you to stay in power. Just go study how lifelong communists in the USSR suddenly became uber-capitalists in 1990s Russia. The only common thread was that they wanted to continue their gravy train of power and money……

  • mohdanga


  • davidofkent

    In essence, we are having the same debate that the Ancient Greeks had. They loved democracy, but every so often a smooth talker would come along to convince them that in their existing situation it would be better to rely on a group of oligarchs who would know what to do. Sometimes they were swayed by it, but the end was always the same. the unelected, self-chosen, elite gave themselves more and more power until the population finally realised what was happening and reacted. We are in a similar boat. The unelected EU elite have given themselves the power to tell us what to do. We should do what the ancient Greeks did, although without the head-lopping that accompanied the revolt.

  • Tom M


  • grumpyoldrockape

    And today’s Brexit-favoring polls…
    poll on U.K. referendum on EU shows 45% leave, 42% remain and 13%
    undecided, according to ICM poll released by Guardian on its website.
    Online survey shows 47% leave, 44% remain, 9% undecided.
    Ladbrokes noted a huge increase in the proportion of money being bet on Brexit..
    And are moving the odds…

    With just over 3 weeks to go the Brits are starting to come to their senses.
    It’s them vs The Establishment