Uruguay’s mounting crisis: a parable for the paralysis of the Left

This summer, as the British Labour Party finds itself blindsided by the rise of Leftist populism, a number of analyses have sought to counterpose this against broader problems facing the Left across Europe. In power in many countries at the time of the 2008 crash, and having embraced free market economics and neoliberalism in many cases, social democratic parties have been left unable to articulate an alternative to traditional supporters enduring falling living standards, rising levels of job insecurity, and who – for the first time since 1945 – see an economic and political system which is palpably failing them.

In the absence of new ideas, the Left has increasingly taken refuge in old ones, generally defined in opposition to something: most notably, austerity. Paul Mason views this as the start of a long transition signalling the end of capitalism as we know it; the trouble is, as whatever will replace it is still entirely unclear, social democratic parties find themselves trapped defending a system which they know no longer works, amid a context of what was once organised labour being dispersed, atomised, by the rise of self-employment, the digital economy and globalisation.

In trouble across Europe – only in Italy, where the centre-right was humiliated by various euro-related disasters, are the social democrats still in a position of relative strength – the Left’s only (supposed) success story has been in South America: where it’s dominated over the last decade and more. But even there, its position is now dramatically weakening, for reasons which are depressingly familiar.

In any case, we should note that what might seem like ‘success stories’ to unreconstructed Leftists have amounted to little more than ugly, lowest common denominator populism in too many cases. The main driver behind the Left’s rise in South America has been powerful, emotive memories of the 1970s: when the US covertly supported a whole host of murderous, fascist dictatorships, particularly in the continent’s South Cone (encompassing Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Uruguay). As democracy returned, and those who grew up under these regimes came of age, populist, socialist movements grew in influence: most of which styled themselves in opposition to the imperialist meddling of Washington.

Yet when they came to power, the response of a number of leaders (particularly in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and to a lesser extent, Argentina) was to consciously divide their countries between rich and poor. To oppose the demagogue Hugo Chávez in Venezuela was to be depicted as part of some American-backed Fifth Column, trying to bring the horrors of the 1970s back; and while it’s true that the CIA have clearly tried to infiltrate the opposition at times, it’s more accurate to say that under President Obama, the State Department has simply waited for Venezuela to collapse, as it inevitably will.

In August 2003, around 3.2m signatures were collected for a recall referendum against Chávez, provided for in the constitution. These were rejected by the National Electoral Council (CNE) on the grounds of being put together before the midpoint of the Presidential term; the government then raided CNE and seized the petitions. In September, the opposition collected a new set of signatures, some 3.6m: rejected by the CNE on the grounds that many were invalid. Riots which killed nine and injured 1200 followed this decision. The petitioners appealed to the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court, which reinstated 800,000 signatures, bringing the total to well over the 2.4m required; but this was overturned by the Court’s Constitutional Chamber, and again, the government seized the list.

Eventually, the referendum was granted – but only after the list of signatories was posted online by Luis Tascón, member of the National Assembly and government supporter. On television, Chávez boasted about the list, warning darkly that “those who sign against Chávez are signing against their country… against the future”; and that all signatories would “remain registered in history, because they’d have to put their name, last name, signature, ID number and fingerprint”.

Signatories now found themselves fired, denied jobs, denied official documents, threatened and intimidated by government-backed militias. Many fled the country. When it came, the referendum was rigged, as subsequent elections have been. The list itself can still be bought even now from market stalls in Caracas for a few dollars.

When supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, or the man himself, defend Venezuelan ‘democracy’, they are actually defending a police state: in which opposition leaders are jailed, and opposition supporters intimidated and worse by militias. Despite being one of the world’s most oil-rich nations, it’s a basket case. There is no paper or toilet paper on the shelves; the puppet Parliament has given Nicolás Maduro, Chávez’ successor, the right to rule by decree; Maduro falls back on comically suggesting that the Americans will bomb Venezuela, and sabre rattling against neighbouring Colombia and Guyana; food shortages remain endemic; murder, kidnapping and violent crime have reached epidemic proportions. Chávismo, whatever it stood for to begin with, has failed.

In Ecuador, meanwhile, President Rafael Correa uses millions of dollars from the country’s intelligence budget to censor and remove online videos and other information critical of him. The last remaining freedom of expression NGO was ordered by the government to close earlier this month, despite recording more than 600 attacks against journalists over the last four years. Amnesty International has accused Correa of restricting “core human rights of freedoms of assembly, association and expression in Ecuador”.

And in Argentina, which took to inventing its own inflation figures out of thin air, has imposed strict currency controls, and where the media has found itself under continual government attack, the as yet unexplained death of Alberto Nisman, a federal prosecutor investigating the 1994 car bombing of the Jewish Centre in Buenos Aires, again brought into focus a country where corruption is rife, the intelligence services have alarming amounts of unchecked power, and where freedom of the press is, in practice, significantly lacking. The peso was devalued by 20% in 2014; further devaluation is likely next year, and on the black markets, the currency has fallen much further.

The response of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has been, again, to sabre rattle: against Britain over the Falklands, American hedge fund managers, even Uruguay over a pulp mill. Peronism, a political doctrine which essentially stands for nothing, depends on this sort of populism. It’s a mistake to view Kirchner as a socialist; she’s not. She’s a neo-corporatist who buys off the poor while providing no genuine long term help, while encouraging a cult of personality – anathema to fully functioning republics, as the speech below beautifully explains – common to the leaders mentioned above, as well as Evo Morales in Bolivia. None of these countries are success stories; none should be cited by any sort of serious, grown-up Left as models to be emulated.

With the Brazilian economy in crisis, its oligarchs still hugely powerful (demonstrated by the FIFA scandal as much as anything else), and Dilma Rousseff weighed down by corruption allegations, what does that leave? Peru to an extent; Chile and Uruguay. On the South American Left, only the latter two countries (routinely cited in surveys as safest, least corrupt, and offering the continent’s best quality of life) have been consistent successes over the last decade: in both cases, by remaining moderate, non-ideological, and seeking to bring the whole country with them. Not cynically dividing them and engaging in what, in Argentina to an extent and Venezuela especially, has often amounted to political warfare against legitimate opponents.

Michelle Bachelet’s Chile is often described, albeit dubiously, as South America’s only First World country. The politics of its government? For want of a better term, Blairite. But the country itself is not remotely left wing, and closer ideologically to Colombia (which has increasing ties with the US) than the rest of the continent. Bachelet, moreover, is now enduring historically appalling approval ratings: which encouraged Latin American conspiracy theories regarding Chile’s recent Copa América triumph on home soil, are predicated mostly on a corruption scandal involving her son and daughter-in-law; and presage, almost certainly, a shift to the Right at the next election. Bachelet’s socialists are in trouble.

All of which brings us to Uruguay: the main focus of this article. A country tiny in population (just 3.4m, almost half of whom live in the capital, Montevideo), plentiful in water supplies and green spaces (geographically, it’s around the size of England and Wales), famous for its football and beef, and where welfarist traditions abound. A century ago, under the watch of celebrated President José Batlle y Ordóñez, Uruguay implemented one of the world’s first genuine welfare states: including unemployment benefit, eight-hour workdays, and huge government intervention in the economy. Many credit the socially cohesive, homogenous society which resulted with helping Uruguay, which became known as the Switzerland of South America, lift the football World Cup in 1930 and 1950.

But after the Second World War, in tandem with the rest of the South Cone, Uruguay fell into increasingly precipitous social and economic decline. The conditions triggering the dictatorship gradually fell into place as the country moved towards the extremes and Leftist activists, the Tupamaros (MLN-T) began robbing banks, gun clubs and other businesses, redistributing the proceeds to the poor. In 1968, faced with serious labour unrest, President Jorge Pacheco enforced a state of emergency and repealed all constitutional protections. Political dissidents were imprisoned and tortured; demonstrations were brutally repressed. The MLN-T responded by morphing into a fully fledged urban guerilla movement, which engaged in political kidnappings, bombings and assassinations.

Among their number was one José Mujica. Apprehended by the authorities on no fewer than four occasions, he ultimately spent 13 years in captivity: including a two-year spell in solitary confinement at the bottom of a well, where his only friends were rats. The insurgency peaked in 1970, and the Tupamaros had collapsed by mid-1972. Combined with the rigging of the 1971 election in favour of Juan María Bordaberry’s Colorado Party, this paved the way for the military to confront the independence of first the judiciary, then the executive, then the legislative. The dictatorship was ushered in in 1973; and at one point, presided over more political prisoners per capita than anywhere else in the world.

Uruguay, though, has always been a curious, idiosyncratic sort of place. Few countries anywhere have been presented with a constitutional plebiscite designed to ratify a military junta, let alone had the courage to reject it: as to their rulers’ shock, the people did in 1980. Even fewer would, at a further referendum, then reject the chance to prosecute those responsible: yet Uruguay did in 2009, despite many of those who had been part of the MLN-T insurgency now being in power.

How had the latter come to pass? Uruguay returned to democracy in 1984; and in the 1990s, embarked on a series of privatisations. Its always important financial sector became alarmingly dependent on Argentinian depositors seeking to hide their savings from prying tax inspectors, and taking advantage of Uruguayan banking secrecy. Uruguay was increasingly economically reliant on its much larger neighbour: meaning when Argentina catastrophically defaulted in December 2001, Uruguay suffered its own enormous financial crash the following year.

The 2002 crisis remains the pivotal watershed in the country since the dictatorship. The banks were shut for a week; hundreds of thousands fell out of the middle class into serious poverty; a lost generation of children brought up in such conditions wasn’t the danger, but the likelihood. Something had to give.

Since the return to democracy, the Leftist Frente Amplio (FA) (Broad Front) had been making gradual progress – but was up against two political leviathans. Between them, the Partido Colorado and Partido Nacional (Blancos) had governed Uruguay ever since its formation in 1830: the former, the party of the cities; the latter, the party of the countryside. No recognisably Leftist party ever usurped this duopoly: albeit the impact of Batlle’s reforms was such that both major parties tended, for the most part, to coalesce around the centre, and rarely attempt anything extreme. Other than the period around the dictatorship, democracy and pluralism (the latter, more than anything, is the cornerstone of Batllismo) were always respected.

The impact of the crash, though, completed the Frente Amplio‘s rise; and for that matter, squared the circle for many involved with the Tupamaros over 30 years earlier. The old politics had failed. Now, by putting together a coalition which encompassed communists, socialists, social democrats, social liberals, centrists and independents all under one banner – uniting the entire Left in a manner which, unfathomably, has still not been attempted in Britain – the ancien régime was swept aside, and Tabaré Vázquez returned as President, with a huge mandate. Vázquez and the FA won 51.7% of the vote, eliminating the need for a Presidential run-off. The governing Colorados were obliterated: collapsing from 32.8% at the 1999 first round to just 10.6%. Usurped in the cities by the FA, in a manner not unlike New Labour’s surge across London and the south-east in 1997, for the Colorados – historically, by far Uruguay’s most successful party – there was no way back.

Vázquez now commenced a comprehensive wave of reforms. Income tax was introduced for the first time; $100m was invested in emergency food and health programmes; the healthcare system itself was turned into an insurance-based scheme accessible to all Uruguayans. Poverty was slashed from 32% to 20%; extreme poverty from 4% to 1.5%. Notably, the government also presided over the One Laptop Per Child (Plan Ceibal) scheme, the first of its kind in the world, which provided every grade school student and teacher in Uruguay with a laptop connected to the internet.

The President further endeared himself to his compatriots by standing up to Argentina during a bizarre dispute over a pulp mill in Fray Bentos. His counterpart, Nestor Kirchner, complained that its construction would contaminate the Uruguay River, which separates the two countries. Bridges over the River were blockaded by enraged locals in Argentina; Kirchner took Uruguay to the International Court of Justice (ICJ); Uruguay threatened to resort to the World Trade Organisation.

The dispute lasted fully 7 years – and was ended by the ICJ ruling that the plant could keep operating, and both governments agreeing to the creation of a bi-national commission which would monitor river pollution. Vázquez later revealed he’d even considered the possibility of a military conflict: and sought the backing of his friend, George W. Bush, and Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s Secretary of State. Just in case.

Ultimately though, what made Vázquez’ success possible was sustained economic growth. GDP rocketed by 10.5% in 2005, and growth averaged 7% over subsequent years. Moreover, what separated the FA from so many Leftist governments across the continent was its pragmatism: cautious, even neoliberal economic policies were pursued, with foreign investment encouraged and inflation controlled. Most of the credit for this was due to the brilliant Danilo Astori, leader of the centrist Asamblea Uruguay and Vázquez’ indispensable finance minister.

Before being swept from power, the old parties had warned that the Left would turn the country into Cuba. Quite the opposite. Looking back, what’s remarkable was how well a coalition of such diverse political positions held; all those within the FA who’d fought for so long to achieve power and change Uruguay never lost sight of the bigger picture. The President, meanwhile, was in his element: an oncologist by profession, he’d been entrusted with a patient in near terminal condition, successfully removed the tumour and given it a new lease of life.

Tabaré Vázquez

Uruguay’s constitution does not allow a President to serve two consecutive terms. So Vázquez, who basked in extraordinary approval ratings of 80%, departed; and the overwhelming success of his government made Mujica, his very different successor, a virtual shoo-in. This was indeed quite a story. 25 years earlier, Mujica had been in captivity; 39 years earlier, after being shot six times by police, the then guerilla had been fighting for his life in a Montevideo hospital. Now, Uruguay’s answer to Nelson Mandela became its unique, truly one-of-a-kind head of state.

When they travel to other continents, Uruguayans are used to being asked just where their country is. “Is it in Africa?”, enquire some. “Part of Argentina?”, wonder others. Two men have done a huge amount to change this and put the place on the map. Footballing icon Luis Suárez; and Pepe Mujica. The world’s humblest President: who lives on a farm, grows his own food, gave 90% of his salary to charity, never wears a tie in any circumstances, and whose sole, cherished possession is a 1987 Volkswagen Beetle.

Pepe and his beloved Beetle

I moved to Uruguay in February 2012. When I arrived, people I spoke with were embarrassed by Mujica. “We can’t have a President who behaves like this!”, they wailed. “It looks terrible for us!” I thought it was wonderful, and told them as much: “We’d go crazy for someone like him in Europe!” For Mujica then, read Corbyn now? There are parallels: not only in their politics and peculiar appeal, but their humility.

That very humility, indeed, was why contrary to what might’ve been expected, Mujica initially consolidated his predecessor’s moderation and good sense. Astori was now Vice-President: under his watch, growth and stability continued, while the President kept those on the far Left of the coalition at bay. In the meantime, the FA married social liberalism with social democracy: passing legislation allowing abortion, equal marriage, and proposing that the sale of cannabis be regulated.

This latter idea was what sprung Mujica into global prominence. What’s rather less known, though, is that next to nothing has actually happened. Cannabis is the perfect example of how Mujica’s image is not matched by the reality: many Uruguayans believe he was much more concerned with how he appeared overseas than making a substantive difference at home; some, of the more cynical variety, even think that where Pepe’s concerned, it’s mostly all an act.

In 2013, Mujica gave a celebrated speech to the UN General Assembly, where he fulminated against the world’s obsession with consumption. He urged a return to simplicity: family, love, free time, a planet based not on markets but on conservation and fraternity. Free time, indeed, is a favourite theme of his; but with the cost of living in Uruguay prohibitively high, it’s not a luxury enjoyed by anything like enough of his people. Dirty, litter-strewn streets and lack of recycling (if you try to recycle things in Uruguay, they’re often taken to the same place as the rubbish!) also sit at odds with the romanticised rhetoric.

Throughout my time in the country, I was always aware of its constant contrasts and contradictions. Of high quality, high speed internet – but which took a month of pleading phone calls and a dozen cancelled appointments for the state owned monopoly, Antel, to finally install. Of buses which are cheap and reliable enough, but on which there isn’t enough room to swing a cat: if you have any luggage, whatever you do, take a taxi. Of taxis which, unlike in Buenos Aires, are safe: it’s just that the drivers fancy themselves as the next Lewis Hamilton and take you halfway round Montevideo first. Of a locale which always, to me, felt safe; but only because of porters in every apartment block, security guards outside every bank… and which was punctuated intermittently by news of a particularly shocking murder.

Most Uruguayans believe the country has never been less safe. Guns are readily available; murder and violent crime has risen alarmingly. Compounding this has been the rather ambiguous view of the government, many of whose members have a pathological distrust of the police thanks to their own awful experiences under the dictatorship. There aren’t many societies where the Interior Minister will blame a murder or robbery on ‘the consumer society… poor people want things too’, but it happens in Uruguay. Similarly, not many countries would, with football hooliganism rife, withdraw the police from a big match not to protect them (as was assumed around the world), but actually to protect football fans (and, it might be added, FA voters) from alleged police brutality. Last year, that happened too.

Again and again, what I noted was an extremely well-meaning government full of Leftist thinkers and academics, but which too often did not fully understand either the consequences of their policies, or the reality on the ground. A reality which, in cost of living, is so grim that the refugees Uruguay took in from Syria amid a huge fanfare last year recently asked to return home.

There were plenty of signs, then, that the FA was tiring during its second term – but as the economy continued to grow, poverty and inequality kept falling (reaching, in both cases, the lowest levels anywhere in Latin America: a fantastic achievement), and services by and large continued to deliver, nowhere near enough reason to kick the government out. In the middle of last year, the youthful, optimistic Luis Lacalle Pou, candidate for the centre-right Blancos, who seemed for all the world to have modelled his campaign on that which thrust David Cameron to prominence in 2005, briefly threatened a huge electoral shock. But as his policies came under scrutiny, his momentum fell away: under the marketing gloss lay not much by way of substance.

In any case, Uruguayans resist change like almost no other people anywhere; and Vázquez, the archetypal safe pair of hands, was back. Plenty of people were disenchanted with the government: but Vázquez is not of the Left, and his was a deeply reassuring presence. So much so that against all predictions, the FA actually improved its position – and in 10 years, almost nothing had changed. It still commanded around a half of the electorate; the Blancos remained stranded in the low 30s, the Colorados in the low teens. Another decade in government suddenly seemed inevitable.

But there was a problem. A large one. Vázquez is now 75, and will be 79 by the time of the 2019 election. Astori, now back to being finance minister, is also 75. Mujica is 80. And while the FA commands huge, vibrant support among young people, beneath these three political giants lies a lost generation: an extraordinary dearth not only of new ideas, but immediate future options. The individuals behind the FA’s rise were all radicalised by the 1970s: but memories of that time are fading, and almost nobody politicised during the 1980s or 1990s is ready to step into the breach.

Not only that, but the FA’s victory was so decisive that now, with their leaders old and tired, the far Left began to demand more. Much more. Fear of electoral defeat had gone; complacency and hubris set in instead. The consequences have eroded the government’s position at an increasingly disorienting pace.

Early this year, Uruguay’s public sector deficit was revealed to be much larger than expected: in fact, at 3.5% of GDP, the figure was almost identical to that during and after the 2002 crash. This owed to wild over-expenditure under Mujica (at whom fingers have been pointed with increasing fury); lower than expected tax revenues; and in particular, an enormous loss made by Antel. 2014 was the fourth consecutive year in which the country’s seven state-owned utilities had made an overall loss. Serious irregularities have since been alleged at Ancap, the state oil company; and gross managerial incompetence at OSE, the state water company.

During my time in Uruguay, there was always this worry in my head. With the unions becoming increasingly powerful but the state-owned companies inefficient and uncompetitive, was I watching some South American version of 1970s Britain slowly playing out before me? By way of warning, together with my students, I used to discuss how Margaret Thatcher had come to power: just as the British unions had rejected In Place Of Strife and paralysed the Callaghan government, would their Uruguayan counterparts end up bringing something similar upon them?

The alarming economic figures – in tandem with significantly slowing growth, inflation threatening to spiral out of control, and the peso dramatically depreciating against the dollar – called for immediate belt-tightening. Unhappily, the unions – and in Parliament, the far Left – saw it rather differently. On August 6, after a whole series of labour disputes, the first general strike in 7 years took place; followed by an ongoing education strike which has crippled the country.

In Uruguay, salaries for teachers are low – yet they’ve risen by 65% since the FA came to power. As well as mammoth pay rises (demands were for starting salaries to increase from $727/month to $1040/month, and an offer of $865/month was rejected), unions insisted that the education budget be ring fenced at 6% of GDP. The context of the country’s overall situation was treated as irrelevant.

In August, teachers walked out of primary, secondary schools and universities. After around a fortnight of this, the government had had enough: issuing, for the first time since Uruguay returned to democracy, an emergency decree. Vázquez declared that education was an essential public service, and effectively banned teachers from striking for 30 days. This amounted to a declaration of war; the unions certainly took it as such. Many teachers simply ignored it. The FA had entirely lost control of its own members.

Officially, with students facing having to work right up to Christmas (the school year usually ends in November) in order to catch up and take their exams, the strike ended without agreement on 3 September: the government stating that if teachers did not agree to an offer of $860/month, the extra money would be invested in school infrastructure. In practice, especially in Montevideo, industrial action continued: culminating in shambolic scenes on 22 September.

A group of high school students, demanding that the 6% of GDP threshold be met, occupied the Codicen building in the city centre. After several days of fruitless negotiations, a police tactical unit cleared the building – and were attacked outside by members of the Taxicab Drivers and Telephone Workers Union (SUATT); the Memory and Justice organisation; as well as what we might euphemistically term, hangers-on looking for trouble.

Images of what happened, and the all too familiar disarray of the police, can be seen here. Codicen is only a few blocks from Uruguay’s Parliament building: onto which, anti-government graffiti was scrawled. It’s difficult to recall another teachers’ strike anywhere which ended in such chaos.

Typically, much of the focus since has been on alleged police brutality: a running theme in Uruguay. The Left is so focused on human rights, and references the 1970s so often, that the police lack the stalwart government backing which is automatic in almost any other democracy. This leaves the police – who are underfunded, under-prepared, and in many cases, have to live in the same areas as criminals liable to threaten them and their families – frightened of taking decisive action for fear of themselves ending up in court; and plays an obvious part in the country’s growing insecurity. Indeed, over three-and-a-half years in what remains a very macho society, I scarcely met a woman who, if I asked them (which spotting a dispiriting theme, I very often did), hadn’t been robbed or mugged at one point or another.

Adding insult to injury, hugely depressing second quarter economic figures were revealed a fortnight ago. Wholly unexpectedly, GDP actually fell 0.1% compared with Q2 2014, compounding a 1.8% contraction over the first quarter of 2015. Now, not only slowdown, but recession seems increasingly possible: for reasons which are part internal, part external.

Uruguay is particularly dependent on Brazil and China, both of which are in trouble. It will not escape the impact of probable Brazilian and Argentinian devaluations next year; serious problems affecting Russia and the eurozone hardly help either. And as the economist, Pablo Rosselli, has highlighted, the government faces three awful dilemmas: between competitiveness and inflation (the latter is nearing the psychologically critical 10%); real wage growth and employment; public spending and deficit reduction. On each of these, the Left of the Frente Amplio is pulling the wearied administration in a direction it neither wants nor can afford to travel in.

If, as seems inevitable given the rapidly strengthening dollar, inflation does go over 10%, those hit most will be the poorest: those the government is most charged with helping. But of course, continued spending is only feasible if the economy grows in tandem. It’s stopped doing so; Astori and his colleagues are trapped.

Can Uruguay navigate a way out of this? It seems doubtful, not least because those charged with doing so are so old, so tired. For the first time in 11 years in power, the Left has taken a good look at Vázquez and realised, to put it bluntly: “He’s not one of us!” So when earlier this month and to the shock of observers, Uruguay walked out of negotiations over the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) – which has proven every bit as controversial as its more famous big brother, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – this was a clear case of the tail wagging the dog. The government did so under pressure from the unions; and that Vázquez made such a move well before it was clear what the agreement would actually involve underscored a loss of authority already apparent during last year’s election campaign, which could also be seen in stark terms during the education dispute.

Meanwhile, Mujica, probably the only man who could bring the Left to heel, has lamentably failed to do so, and continues to wax lyrical about some fantasy world unrecognisable to almost all Uruguayans. It’s not been lost on this observer that things started to go wrong domestically almost the moment that Pepe was discovered on the world stage, and began preoccupying himself with his image further afield.

Pulled between Left and Right, the Frente Amplio is as good as broken – but given it’s always been such a loose coalition, perhaps the only surprise should be that it’s taken so long. If you imagine a governing bloc whose two most important, powerful figures are 75-year-old Tony Blair and 80-year-old Jeremy Corbyn, you get a sense of how impossible this conundrum is to solve. The administration has faced more difficulty in six months than over the preceding 10 years; but those problems seem likely to only worsen.

Perhaps much of this is natural. Governments always tire after more than a decade in office; economics are always cyclical too. But there is in all of this a parable. As long as we live in a world of globalised free markets and interdependence – as long as corporations can up and leave if governments seek to put their taxes up – there will only ever be so much that any social democratic party anywhere can achieve. More than that, the moment it becomes too ideological, or frustrated supporters who don’t appreciate what they have drag it away from the centre, it hits more and more trouble. This was Labour’s sad experience after it removed Blair; and for all its considerable achievements, it appears increasingly likely to be the fate of Uruguay’s first ever genuine government of the Left too.

Advertisements

Just what is the point of the European Union?

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.

Monnet and Adenauer

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.

Alan Sked

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:

  1. Moved the Council of Ministers from requiring unanimous agreement to qualified majority voting in at least 45 areas of policy
  2. 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
  3. Established a more powerful European Parliament, which would now form part of a bicameral legislature along with the Council of Ministers
  4. Granted a legal personality to the EU, enabling it to agree treaties in its own name
  5. Created a new long term President of the European Council and a High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy
  6. 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”.

Jean-Claude Juncker

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.

In the fractious Europe of 2015, Marine Le Pen is on the rise

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.