For the best part of the last 30 years, support for the European Union (EU) and Britain’s role within it has been a badge of honour for the left. Just why is this?
Time was when – until around the mid-1980s or so – much of the British left favoured withdrawal from the then European Economic Community (EEC), while the Conservative Party was split. So much so that pro-European Tory MPs and ministers, infuriated by Margaret Thatcher’s mounting antipathy towards the European project, brought the Iron Lady down in 1990, for reasons which now appear bizarre. After her fall, the whole issue of Europe would poison the party, root to tip; while the highly Europhile New Labour grasped the political nettle. Even entry into the euro seemed likely at one point.
Yet the British left’s quarter-century-long enthusiastic support for all things Europe is at odds not only with UK public opinion, but increasingly, the facts on the ground. The euro experiment has been a political, economic and social disaster: impoverishing huge swathes of southern Europe, tying it to a currency with no escape, and even robbing member states of anything resembling democracy or control of their own destinies. Freedom of movement, the dream of so many pro-Europeans, is imploding in tandem with the Schengen agreement. EU political institutions not only profoundly lack democratic legitimacy, but are inert, helpless, in the face of the greatest refugee crisis since 1945. National governments cannot agree on what day of the week it is, let alone how to collectively respond; anti-immigration sentiment is rising across much of the continent. Is the very thing which was designed to bring help bring peace and stability to a region so often ravaged by war now unwittingly serving to provoke not unity, but mounting anger and division?
By the end of 2017, perhaps as soon as next year, the British people, denied a voice on their country’s role within the EU for over four decades, will go to the polls to decide whether the UK should remain… or leave. This article challenges my fellow travellers on the left to do what they have so often neglected: to scrutinise the EU’s very many failings, think long and hard, and ask yourselves: is staying in really worth it?
The forerunner to the Common Market, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), was the brainchild of extraordinarily enlightened French and West German ministers. Twice in the preceding 36 years, their countries had done one another untold levels of human suffering; and Europe’s longer history had involved constant cycles of violence and misery. The peace we all take for granted now was a dream to statesmen such as Robert Schuman of France and Konrad Adenauer of West Germany: both of whom displayed immense courage and remarkably far-sighted vision. Countries which trade with one another do not fight each other. The European project, based on supranationalism and interdependence, was born.
Yet given how recently the two countries had been at war, and the natural mistrust of both their peoples, what would have happened had the ECSC, founded in Paris in 1951 (where Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands joined France and West Germany as co-signatories), been put to a democratic vote? And where Europe was concerned, lack of demonstrable popular consent would prove a constant and ever-mounting problem.
Jean Monnet, founding father of the ECSC, has often wrongly had the following apocryphal words attributed to him:
Europe’s nations should be guided towards the super-state without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.
In fact, these weren’t Monnet’s words at all – but those of the Conservative politician and author, Adrian Hilton, in The Principality and Power of Europe, published in 1997. Yet this is almost by the by. That so many have ascribed the words to Monnet is because so many have been so shocked at what the European project has since become.
The ECSC morphed first into the Common Market, then the EEC. Britain joined in 1973, and its public approved membership by two to one in the 1975 referendum: where recently elected Tory leader, Mrs Thatcher, campaigned passionately for a ‘Yes’ vote. But what the public were sold then – a mutually beneficial club based on free trade and nothing more – was not remotely what would transpire; and gradually, the penny began to drop.
Contrary to her reputation of fire and brimstone (and especially, the myths she indulged following her downfall), Thatcher went on to sign the Single European Act: the first substantive revision of the Treaty of Rome since 1957, which codified not only economic, but political co-operation between member states. With the sole exception of the Lisbon Treaty, no single piece of legislation did more to accelerate the EEC’s transformation from free trade zone to political behemoth.
Under pressure from various key Cabinet ministers – Nigel Lawson, Sir Geoffrey Howe, Douglas Hurd and John Major – and greatly against her better judgement, Thatcher even acceded to Britain’s membership of the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM): where sterling would shadow the deutschmark, but as events would prove, at entirely the wrong rate. But when it came to proposals for a single currency, the Prime Minister balked.
In the House of Commons, Thatcher focused on the obvious threat which a common currency would pose to national, economic and Parliamentary sovereignty. Yet with stunning levels of prophecy, her autobiography, paraphrased by The Telegraph in 2010, set out her broader fears:
(Thatcher) warned John Major, her euro-friendly chancellor of the exchequer, that the single currency could not accommodate both industrial powerhouses such as Germany and smaller countries such as Greece. Germany, forecast Thatcher, would be phobic about inflation, while the euro would prove fatal to the poorer countries because it would “devastate their inefficient economies”.
To watch the famous “No! No! No!” debate in the Commons in October 1990 is to observe two things. First, a Prime Minister in absolute command of the issues: who foresaw with impeccable prescience that no country which loses control of its money supply can retain control over financial policy, Parliamentary sovereignty, or even its democracy itself. And second: support which came more across the floor from figures such as Tony Benn or David Owen than her own party; especially, her own Cabinet.
Thatcher’s increasingly autocratic style – going over the head of Sir Geoffrey, the Deputy Prime Minister, and ignoring collective Cabinet government in so doing – would bring her down within weeks. Yet her words have echoed down the years since. The Iron Lady got many things wrong in her final years in office and divided the country hugely throughout her premiership; but on Europe, who now could possibly claim she did not foresee with perfect clarity exactly what was coming?
The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.
History carries with it many strange, bitter ironies. Precisely because Thatcher had become so enormously unpopular by the end of her time, and also thanks to the fratricidal nature of her removal, instead of these words being heeded, two things began to happen. Under her successor, Major, the Conservative Party, unable to forgive itself for what it had done, descended into poison and acrimony: with the amiable Prime Minister undermined at every turn by Eurosceptic backbenchers, egged on by an embittered ex-Premier. The suddenly renascent Labour Party, meanwhile, defined itself against the hopelessly split Tories: the more the latter obsessed with Europe, the more Tony Blair guided his unified troops towards embracing Britain’s destiny at the heart of the European project.
To look back at that time – and, indeed, the years after Blair entered Downing Street – is to cringe at how many on the left assumed Tory Euroscepticism was based on narrow-minded xenophobia or fear of the other. However unelectable the Tories undoubtedly were, or obsessed with Europe they had plainly become, this meant that the detail of matters of profound importance – economic, political, social, and above all, democratic – was never properly discussed. The left simply embraced Europe as a fundamentally good thing; it never really stopped to ask itself why.
To be sure, what had now become the EU appeared to offer the kind of social protections which Thatcher had sought to remove; certainly, a spirit of open-minded, outward-looking internationalism chimed in perfectly with the broad church which New Labour had become. Yet even as it basked in public approbation, Blair’s government never sought to explain the benefits of the EU to the British people, nor allow them any say (for example, on the proposed EU Constitution) via a referendum. There was simply no serious attempt by Europhiles to set out the merits of their position. Was this because in practice, there scarcely were any?
During this time, like so many of my friends and contemporaries, I was an EU enthusiast too. Beyond some warm, fuzzy sense of peace on Earth and goodwill to all men – an aspiration of what Europe could be, not what it actually was – and blinkered antipathy to anything the Tories stood for, I never really thought about it in much depth. The Maastricht Treaty was so dense, so impenetrable, so voluminous, it seemed better suited for use as an offensive weapon than a vitally important document; goodness knows, I had little or no knowledge of the intricacies of the European Council, the European Commission, or the European Parliament. Which of these bodies had what powers, I couldn’t have begun to articulate; nor could anyone else I knew either.
All except one individual, that is. Alan Sked, founder of the UK Independence Party, was a highly engaging lecturer on my Master’s course. Each week, he would warn us of the wholly illegitimate superstate which the EU would inevitably become; each week, we’d all sit laughing. As befits trendy leftie students, almost none of us took him seriously; but like Thatcher and many on the right, Sked, a brilliant man, had long foreseen the direction of travel. If you’re reading this Alan, mea culpa. You were right.
Mind you, there was one detail I’d parrot to anyone who challenged me about my Europhilia. Freedom of movement. The idea that, should I so choose, I could up, leave, live and work in any other member state was marvellous as far as I was concerned: but in implementing this, the EU had begun to sow the seeds of its own downfall.
For there’s a flipside to freedom of movement. Not merely mass immigration but uncontrollable immigration; nations which lose control of their own borders. And in a globalised world, that inevitably means those from poorer member states migrating to wealthier ones.
At the time, to my shame, I thought the mounting complaints surrounding this, especially following EU enlargement in 2004, were barely concealed racism. They were anything but. Migration on such a scale – the largest wave of inward migration ever to hit the British Isles – pushes wages down and local people, especially those living in poorer areas, out of jobs: generating anger, resentment, alienation, atomisation. The political and media narrative in Britain began to change. In line, it should be noted, with much of northern Europe.
Yet as public frustration grew, still the British people were denied any say on anything to do with the EU. And even in places where referenda were held – in France, the Netherlands, or (twice) in Ireland – rejections of the Nice Treaty, European Constitution, or Lisbon Treaty were met with studied indifference on the part of EU leaders. Their project was now such a runaway express train that no mere member state could be allowed to derail it; so the Constitution was turned into the Lisbon Treaty, and when the Irish people – the only national electorate anywhere in the EU to be allowed a vote on the most far-reaching, seismic piece of legislation in its history – vetoed this, they were simply asked to vote again. Democracy? What democracy?
Why was Lisbon so important? In amending and consolidating the Treaties of Rome and Maastricht, it:
- Moved the Council of Ministers from requiring unanimous agreement to qualified majority voting in at least 45 areas of policy
- Brought in a ‘double majority’ system: which necessitates the support of at least 55% of European Council members, who must also represent at least 65% of EU citizens, in almost all areas of policy
- Established a more powerful European Parliament, which would now form part of a bicameral legislature along with the Council of Ministers
- Granted a legal personality to the EU, enabling it to agree treaties in its own name
- Created a new long term President of the European Council and a High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy
- And made the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU’s bill of rights, legally binding.
Whether you agree with these changes or not is beside the point. The point is: the peoples of Europe were never given a vote on it. Instead, all this was just pushed through over the European public’s collective head. In the twenty-first century, how can such profound constitutional changes – which impact on all Europeans, whether they realise it or not – be allowed without democratic consent?
In any polity, if leaders or legislators do not accede to their position through the ballot box, this lack of accountability breeds out-of-touch, unanswerable governance about which the public can do nothing. Yet that is the reality of the European Union. The President of the Commission is approved by the Parliament; except this happens unopposed. All Commissioners – who together, comprise the executive of the EU – are nominated by member states.
The President of the European Council – that is to say, the de facto President of Europe, the EU’s principal representative on the global stage – is chosen by the heads of government of the member states. And even the European Parliament, whose members are all directly elected by the public, (1) has overseen constant falling turnout ever since the first elections in 1979 (of below 50% at each of the last four European elections, and a miserable 42.5% in 2014); (2) cannot formally initiate legislation; (3) does not contain a formal opposition.
In terms of genuine democracy, most of the above is unrecognisable. If more and more people believe that powers are shifting away from their hands and national legislatures towards a group of illegitimate, unelected bureaucrats and apparatchiks, that’s probably because they’re right.
One such apparatchik was Herman Van Rompuy, the European Council’s first full-time President. An individual less cut out for the position of global ambassador for Europe, it’s impossible to conceive of; and following his appointment, one man in particular wasn’t about to allow him to forget it.
As the EU’s institutions have steadily fallen into disrepair, and publics across Europe grown more and more infuriated at the acquiescence of their national assemblies and established parties, populists have increasingly flourished. Ugly, lowest common denominator populists, in many cases; but when it comes to Europe, that doesn’t mean they don’t often have a point. So it was that as the sheepish Van Rompuy, who probably isn’t even a household name in his own household, presented himself to the Parliament, UKIP leader Nigel Farage gave it to him with both barrels:
Who are you? I’d never heard of you. Nobody in Europe had ever heard of you. I would like to ask you, President! Who voted for you? And what mechanism do the peoples of Europe have to remove you?
Farage is wrong about most things; his opinions on the refugee crisis, for example, are abhorrent. But like Thatcher, he’s been proven spectacularly correct on the EU again and again and again; and in any case, he’s only gained a position of such influence because of the enormous disconnect between Eurocrats and European voters. Which, in 2008/9, was highlighted in no uncertain terms by Václav Klaus, then President of the Czech Republic.
In December 2008, Klaus met with the leaders of various European Parliamentary groups at Hradcany Castle, overlooking Prague. His country had yet to sign the Lisbon Treaty. You might imagine this would have been a convivial meeting, with full respect shown towards a democratically elected head of state. Quite the reverse.
Daniel Cohn-Bendit, leader of the European Greens, complained bitterly that the EU flag was not in evidence above the castle, and plonked his own flag down on the table. He then informed the Czech President: “I don’t care about your opinions on the Lisbon Treaty”.
After the appalling Hans-Gert Pöttering, President of the EU Parliament, weighed in on Cohn-Bendit’s behalf, it was the turn of the Irish MEP, Brian Crowley: who fulminated against Klaus’ apparent support of the successful ‘No’ campaign in the recent referendum. When Klaus replied: “The biggest insult to the Irish people is not to accept the result”, Crowley bawled: “You will not tell me what the Irish think. As an Irishman, I know it best.”
If this was bad, it would get worse. Far worse. Two months later, Klaus was invited to speak to the European Parliament as head of a member state. Europe’s MEPs – supposed servants of the people – were clearly very unused to being told anything other than how wonderful and important they all were. Instead of engaging in the standard empty platitudes, Klaus took the opportunity to deliver perhaps the most important speech ever made in the continental legislature:
Are you really convinced that every time you vote, you are deciding something that must be decided here in this hall and not closer to the citizens, ie. in the individual European states?… In a normal parliamentary system, a faction of MPs supports the government and a faction supports the opposition. In the European Parliament, this arrangement is missing. Here, only one single alternative is being promoted and those who dare think differently are labelled as enemies of European integration.
As if to prove Klaus right, jeers and whistles now began to ring out around the chamber. Undeterred, the President continued, reminding his audience of his country’s tragic recent history under Communist rule: “A political system that permitted no alternatives and therefore also no parliamentary opposition… where there is no opposition, there is no freedom. That is why political alternatives must exist”.
At length, Klaus arrived at the coup de grace. In a few softly spoken paragraphs, he not only punctured the pomposity of the delegates as no-one ever had before; he also set out exactly what was wrong with the European Union, and why this fundamental problem could not be resolved:
The relationship between a citizen of a member state and a representative of the Union is not a standard relationship between a voter and a politician, representing him or her. There is also a great distance (not only in a geographical sense) between citizen and Union representatives, which is much greater than it is inside the member countries.
This distance is often described as the democratic deficit; the loss of democratic accountability, the decision-making of the unelected – but selected – ones, the bureaucratisation of decision-making. The proposals… included in the rejected European Constitution or in the not much different Lisbon Treaty would make this defect even worse.
Since there is no European demos – and no European nation – this defect cannot be solved by strengthening the role of the European Parliament either. This would, on the contrary, make the problem worse and lead to an even greater alienation between the citizens of the European countries and Union institutions.
There followed a quite extraordinary spectacle. Unable to bear the laser guided truth missiles raining down upon them from the lectern, 200 MEPs rose to their feet and walked out. In a dispiriting sign of just how impervious the British left had become on the whole question of the EU, many of those doing so were Labour MEPs. As demonstrations of the farce that is European ‘democracy’ go, it will never be bettered.
In his speech, Klaus had set out just how counter-productive the European project had become. Something designed to bring Europe closer together was, in fact, threatening to drive its peoples apart: because without democratic consent, and in the absence of a European nation, how had the public agreed to what was being implemented over their heads, in their name?
It was also increasingly clear that Europe could only be a superstate, or a collection of sovereign states. It could not be both, operating under the same institutional umbrella. The former required Europe-wide consent which had never been asked for, let alone provided; the latter would only lead to paralysis, with the various members unable to agree on common policy and pursuing often wildly diverging national interests.
Leftist supporters of the EU, even when noting many of its deficiencies, often argue that Britain must stay in to pursue and lead calls for reform. But the point is: for the reasons Klaus set out, it is impossible to reform. The democratic deficit has been spoken about with deepening alarm for 20 years and more; not only has nothing been done to change this, but the Union’s institutions have accrued considerably more unaccountable (in many respects, illegitimate) powers over that time. Uncontrolled immigration has continued across the continent; but in the face of an unprecedented refugee crisis and the emergence of right wing populism in Denmark, England, France and elsewhere, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the Commission, describes freedom of movement as one of the EU’s “greatest achievements”.
And then, of course, there’s the euro. Nowhere has the intransigent, indifferent, fanatical nature of the Union been displayed more openly than over the ongoing economic catastrophe it proudly oversees. As Thatcher noted in her autobiography, tying so many hugely different economies together under one monetary unit was bound to lead to disaster. Yet this was compounded by (1) no public mandate for this in any of those countries; (2) eurozone states, in theory if not, as we shall see, always in practice, keeping control of their budgets and tax affairs; (3) German monetary discipline in the face of appalling repercussions elsewhere; (4) despite all being part of one currency, member states remaining responsible for the debts they accrue.
The latter point has meant that far and away the euro’s strongest member, Germany, has been able to have its cake and eat it: flooding the market with cheap exports, while deliberately holding wages down at home, and building up the largest trade surplus anywhere in the world. That surplus automatically grows simply as a result of prices being artificially low in Germany, artificially high elsewhere. Its own domestic and political priorities have trumped those of many other euro members.
Meanwhile, when others get into difficulty, they don’t have the option of devaluing and recovering. Instead, all they can do is put taxes up again and again (destroying their competitiveness in the process) and cut, cut, cut: with profound social consequences. The result has been youth unemployment across southern Europe of eye-watering levels: a whole generation has been written off just to preserve a currency which nobody with an ounce of economic literacy believes can work.
The euro has been such a disaster that since its launch amid much fanfare and bureaucrat backslapping, Italy has scarcely grown at all: and recently experienced twelve consecutive quarters of contraction. As the Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan, has noted, even outside the single currency, Britain is now part of the only trade bloc in the world which is actually shrinking: a bloc most of whose members (but not so much the UK) face mounting demographic timebombs too.
Meanwhile, member states trapped inside the euro’s economic prison have found themselves unable (or rather, not permitted) to change course, even if they wanted to. Ireland was told it would have to have its budget approved by the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) before it could hold elections. In Italy, euro architect, Mario Monti, appointed as a lifetime senator just three days earlier, was parachuted in to lead an entire government of wholly unelected technocrats in implementing harsh austerity reforms, regardless of what the public wished. And in Greece, the cradle of democracy, events have had to be seen to be believed.
Greece, of course, is the ultimate example of an economy which should never have been part of the euro to begin with; and whose then leaders conspired with Goldman Sachs in cooking the books to gain admission. The moment it was accepted into, in William Hague’s famous words, a “burning building with no exits”, its fate was sealed.
A great deal of nonsense has been spoken about Greece somehow being responsible for the unmitigated economic catastrophe in which it finds itself: how, in the parlance so beloved of austerians, it “maxed out the credit card, then expected others to pay the bill”. In practice, Greece has been the world’s most enduring victim of the 2008 global crash. This was caused, of course, by the toxic sub-prime mortgage bubble bursting; in consequence of which, the private exposure of the banks was piled onto the public across the developed world.
For Greece, already a weak service economy hugely dependent on tourism, the downgrading of national bonds via the corporate sector and credit rating agencies was especially crippling: piling up interest payments to the point where they became a noose around the country’s neck. Greek government 10-year bond yields, generally sailing along at around 5% until 2010, soared to an unthinkable 48.6% by March 2012.
This meant of the so-called European Central Bank (ECB)/IMF ‘bailout’ loans which Greece received, fully three-quarters went towards debt and interest repayments, paying back the IMF, and recapitalising the banks. Just 11% was used for government cash needs. The loans barely went towards stabilising the Greek economy at all; and were accompanied by austerity packages so lunatic, they should have come with a public health warning.
When George Papandreou, the Greek Prime Minister, announced the government’s desire to hold a referendum on the 2011 ‘bailout’, he was forced out, and replaced, as in Italy, by a technocratic, puppet administration. There was no election; and Lucas Papademos, the new Premier, was a former ECB Vice-President. The Greek people had been warned.
Entirely predictably, given skyrocketing repayments and strangulating austerity, the package failed; and in the meantime, Papademos had intensified the mass sell-off of public assets. Pushed almost beyond breaking point, the public had had enough: voting in a government led by radical leftists, Syriza, earlier this year; then rejecting another draconian bail-out via referendum on July 5.
Since the new government’s accession, it had frantically sought a sensible accommodation with the group of euro finance ministers: Any such agreement would self-evidently feature an enormous write-off of debt. But as the maverick Yanis Varoufakis, Don Quixote himself, quickly discovered, the Eurogroup wasn’t interested in helping a stricken member along the path to sustainability and any kind of viable future. Instead, for nakedly political reasons, it wanted its pound of flesh. Papandreou had been punished for insurrection; so too must the new Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras.
The aim, plainly, was to bring Tsipras’ anti-austerity administration down as quickly as possible. The outbreak of democracy in Greece was a threat to be treated with contempt. Varoufakis found himself confronted by the ultimate blockhead: Wolfgang Schäuble, the ultra-conservative German finance minister.
The other side insisted on a ‘comprehensive agreement’, which meant they wanted to talk about everything. My interpretation is that when you want to talk about everything, you don’t want to talk about anything… There were absolutely no (new) positions put forward on anything by them.
(Schäuble was) consistent throughout… His view was, ‘I’m not discussing the programme – this was accepted by the previous (Greek) government and we can’t possibly allow an election to change anything’.
So at that point, I said: ‘Well perhaps we should simply not hold elections anymore for indebted countries’, and there was no answer.
65 years previously, the ECSC had been born amid a spirit of solidarity: nations putting aside their differences and working together for the common good. Through no fault of its own (other than having signed up to the euro, that is), Varoufakis’ country was trapped in the worst depression seen anywhere in the developed world since the 1930s – but the EU was now a purely political project, driven by self-interested nation states. Those governments which had accepted austerity packages – in Portugal, Spain, Ireland or Italy – were horrified at the idea of Greece winning substantial concessions, because it “would obliterate them politically: they would have to answer to their own people why they didn’t negotiate like we were doing”. Greece was cornered from almost all sides.
What happened when Varoufakis tried to discuss economics in the Eurogroup?
There was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.
The day after the referendum, Varoufakis resigned, and rode off into the sunset. In his absence, the following weekend, the whole world witnessed just what a grotesque spectacle the EU had become. Far from seeking to accommodate Tsipras, Eurozone leaders and finance ministers simply piled on more and more pressure; and were armed with the ECB’s threat of unlawfully cutting off liquidity to Greek banks. Even the central bank was now a political tool to be used by politicians as they saw fit. The Eurogroup – which please note, isn’t even a legal entity – didn’t want a workable solution for Greece. It wanted dominion.
The subsequent ‘agreement’ was even harsher than that rejected at the plebiscite: Varoufakis described it as a “new Versailles Treaty”. The Greek left now began to split; but Tsipras had been shown where the true power lay in Europe, and had no way out. On 22 July, he won a Parliamentary vote clearing the way for Greece to agree talks with its creditors on the horrendous new package; but this was no victory. To this thunderstruck observer, for all the world, it was like watching a national Parliament vote itself out of existence.
Tsipras has since been forced to call early elections: the centre-right recently caught up with Syriza in the polls. The euro may well be about to claim its latest victim; the people of Greece will continue to pay an intolerable price.
During his triumphant Labour leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn, hero of the British left, has spoken of “solidarity with Greece”. In practice, what does this actually mean? This summer revealed as never before how few friends Greece has within the EU: Eastern European states and Finland were arguably even more draconian in their stance than Germany. There was no attempt to find a consensus which would genuinely help the ravaged Greek economy recover at all; instead, the can was kicked down the road yet again. ‘Extend and pretend’, not real action, was the response to an enormous economic and social crisis affecting an EU member. Solidarity? What solidarity?
Britain is but one often isolated voice among 28 member states, and not even in the euro (despite which, extraordinarily, the European Commission has been trying to enforce UK deficit reduction ever since 2008. Tory austerity? It comes by express order of Eurocrats, dear readers). Even in the wildly implausible scenario of a Corbyn General Election victory in 2020, what could a government led by him actually do? Nothing. Proponents of the EU argue that this is temporary: that the right is currently dominant across much of Europe, and the Union will inevitably rediscover its ‘old values’ when the left reasserts itself electorally.
But this doesn’t stand up. Actually, the only way the euro will stand any chance in future is if a superstate is formally agreed and approved of at the ballot box by its members; and this superstate, in the manner of the federal US, then takes on responsibility for all economic and taxation policy, as well as all debts accrued. The chances of this? Zero. The Eurozone publics and many of its governments would never stand for it.
The great mistake of the EU’s architects has been to assume that, in a world of ever-closer interdependence, nation states could gradually be swept away in the name of a greater cause. In fact, as this important article explains, Europe’s elites knew that disaster was inevitable even before the euro was launched:
Specific crises of national sovereignty were needed, i.e., socially perceived problems that could not be solved within the national framework. The occurrence of such crises was a window of opportunity for the progress of the unification process, and determined its direction: an economic crisis would favour developments towards economic integration… Crises were opportunities for the development of a federalist “initiative”.
‘An economic crisis would favour developments towards economic integration’. In other words, the woes which would befall the euro’s southern states would, or so the Eurocrats believed, inevitably force those states into a federal superstate, whether the people liked it or not.
Ironically, this is essentially the same error as another enormous, unwieldy Union – the Soviet Union – made. Both nationalism and especially its benign cousin, patriotism, will always be innate and powerful forces; people will always need a place called home. And when those people have the right to formulate their own policies and forge their own national destinies at the ballot box removed from them, they react. It’s inevitable. “Europe’s nations should be guided towards the super-state without their people understanding what is happening” – but more and more people do understand what is happening, and they don’t like it one bit.
Thus in the face of the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, the response of a good number of Eastern European states – notably Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – has been one of fear. It’s true that leaders such as the appalling Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister, have irresponsibly whipped this fear up; but it’s also the case that peoples across Europe simply did not vote for migration of whatever nature on this enormous scale.
Meanwhile, what can other governments do but respond to these fears? The Danish government have taken to placing advertisements in the Lebanese press warning refugees of the hurdles they will face should they come to Denmark. The French government have to keep at times alarming levels of support for Marine Le Pen’s National Front in check ahead of Presidential elections in 2017: where she has become a genuine threat. The British authorities unconscionably deport 18-year-old Afghan refugees taken in as children back to their country of origin – an approach which is not only disgracefully inhumane, but as with its treatment of non-EU graduates, constitutes economic self-harm – and have not fully clarified whether the same might apply to the pitifully low numbers of Syrian children being granted asylum now.
Goodness knows what Monnet, Schuman or Adenauer would have made of Europe’s shambolic response (or rather, non-response) to this crisis; but a great deal of it is predicated upon the forces which the European project has unwittingly unleashed. Imagine if, instead of freedom of movement, the nations of Europe still had control over their borders, and could decide which migrants to accept based on the interests of their economies? Would fears about being ‘overwhelmed’ by immigration be anything like as powerful? It’s more likely, surely, that with national, points-based, needs-based systems keeping economic migration under control, European public opinion would be reassured, and refugees from a war as brutal as Syria welcomed with open arms.
In any case: with the Syrian conflict having gone on for over 4 years, killed well over 200,000, and displaced fully half of the entire population, what is the point of the EU if throughout that time, it’s never been able to provide a co-ordinated response? Not only has it taken until now for some member states to begin to agree on the numbers of refugees to be taken in; but there’s never been a common approach in terms of aid, demanding Middle Eastern states do more, or working towards the establishment of safe havens.
As it does not have an army, and is generally less influential diplomatically than a number of member states, the latter two points are largely beyond the EU’s remit: but that again begs the question, what is it there for? What benefits does it bring? What does it presently do which, if it did not exist, Europe’s nations would not already be doing?
A favourite trope of the left is that Britain cannot ‘isolate itself from the world’ or ‘exist by itself’ by withdrawing from the Union. This conjures up the bizarre image of one of the wealthiest nations and largest economies on the planet, arguably number one in terms of soft power, somehow waking up the day after the referendum and finding itself all alone, without a friend anywhere. War, famine and pestilence would, insist the doomsayers, surely follow.
Well, no it wouldn’t. Quite the opposite. The one argument which will be trotted out again and again between now and the referendum is that concerning jobs: so many, we are told, are dependent upon EU membership. It might come as a surprise to learn, then, that Britain is a net loser from the EU in financial terms; and comically, when the UK economy outperforms the rest of the EU, it finds itself penalised for success with a huge surcharge. £1.7bn was demanded by Brussels in October 2014, since quietly paid off.
Is David Cameron in a position to get these rules changed and follow Thatcher, his celebrated predecessor, in securing a rebate? Not in a Union of 28 members with qualified majority voting, he isn’t. Britain might have a voice in the EU; but contrary to the Prime Minister’s protestations ahead of renegotiation, no longer holds remotely enough sway to make a substantial difference to its direction. Angela Merkel, the true power in Europe, has declared that freedom of movement is not up for discussion (Germany’s temporary closure of its borders in recent days is actually within the terms of the Schengen agreement); and when Cameron opposed Juncker’s appointment last year, he found himself in a small minority. Of one.
Meanwhile, as (mostly, though not entirely thanks to the euro disaster) the EU shrinks, so does its share of British exports: which plummeted from 65% in 2006 to 45% by 2014. As the single currency continues to strangle most of Europe’s economies, there is no chance of this trend being reversed: the Greek saga reminding us all of just how bleak the long term prognosis is. Nothing can or will change; southern Europe will remain enslaved by debt, austerity will continue, and eventually, German, Dutch and Finnish taxpayers will face an almighty reckoning. Ageing populations across much of the continent will call welfare models ever more into question too.
Britain doesn’t gain economically from being part of this customs union. It loses. And having vacated its seat at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and been prevented from making any bilateral free trade agreement with any non-EU state since accession in 1973, there isn’t an awful lot it can do about it: unless, that is, it leaves.
Recently, concern has grown over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), being negotiated in secret by the US and EU. The UK has no say here; whatever the EU agrees, it will have to go along with. No-one really knows what the net outcome of TTIP will be – there are strong arguments for and against – but if it allows corporations to sue national governments, the worst case scenario is the effective end of democracy altogether. No wonder, some might say, Eurocrats are so keen.
In any event, just as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) impoverished and ruined Mexican farmers, so TTIP’s most pernicious effects would, just like freedom of movement, inevitably be felt by those least able to absorb them. How can the left even propose, let alone support, such a state of affairs?
There is an alternative though. In an ever more interdependent, digital global economy, freed from the shackles of the EU, Britain would – while still enjoying full access to the single market via membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) – be able to make trade agreements with whoever it pleased. It would have the best of both worlds. And as the EU shrinks economically, so the Commonwealth grows. The latter overtook the former in 2013; while the so-called ‘Anglosphere’ of English-speaking countries – the US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland – will soon be more populous than mainland Europe. If we included South Africa, Caribbean democracies, Hong Kong, Singapore and (however dubiously), rapidly rising India, much more populous.
Highlighting the potential strength of the Anglosphere no doubt sounds quaint; backward-looking, even. To a time of Empire long since passed, and Churchill’s famous line about the three concentric circles. But that misses the point. Its core members share common legal frameworks, common values, an approach to liberalism which makes co-operation in business, economics and much else besides very simple. There’s a reason why English is the lingua franca of business. Why should the UK look to a union based on geography, rather than common language, and a colossally successful common approach to trade?
And of course, this would only form part of British commercial policy anyway. As Hannan, the most articulate, perceptive, idealistic advocate of UK withdrawal anywhere – whom, it is imperative, should be front and centre of the ‘Out’ campaign – has noted, the argument here shouldn’t be beloved of Little Englanders. It should be that of Big Worlders. It’s a big world out there, in which Britain can play its full part across all spheres: including, of course, Europe.
If the EU really were merely a free trade zone, it wouldn’t be necessary to make these arguments. It’s not. It’s a political leviathan: which conducts commercial agreements by itself, arrogates more and more powers to itself, makes and enforces positively byzantine legislation, and has never sought the consent of the people in the process. If any object, it ignores them; if the consequences include economic meltdown across its southern states, it continues blithely along its oblivious, self-congratulatory path; and in the face of real humanitarian catastrophe on the edge of Europe, its institutions don’t so much glide into gear, as clunk. Almost in slow motion.
The fundamental paradox at its heart – that it acts like a de facto superstate, but is continually paralysed by the differing interests of nation states – can never be resolved without democratic consent across the continent, and has caused its signature ‘achievements’ of the euro and the Schengen agreement to descend into fiasco. It shrinks both economically and commercially; its top down, ever more distant nature provokes mounting disquiet and reactionary populism among peoples who have had the ability to control their own affairs removed.
To those on the left reading this who feel differently, I challenge you: name five tangible benefits of EU membership. Not soft, touchy feely, aspirational benefits; actual, real benefits. This should surely be a slam dunk given the frequently unblinking support provided for the EU – but it’s not. I can’t find a single benefit worth the name. All I can identify is the law of unintended consequences acting in all its might as never before.
Thatcher and the Eurosceptics were right all along. Not only are there no real advantages to Britain remaining, but the EU acts against economic prosperity, social cohesion, democracy and nation states; and step by step, is creating a continent both divided and increasingly fractious. If it had never been created, would anyone seriously now invent it? When the referendum comes, the British people should vote to leave.