Europe united – in denial and myth-making
Almost everything we’ve been told about the ‘historic’ Euro-crisis summit is wrong. Here are five Euro-myths for starters.
Euro-myth No 1: ‘It was a triumph for Cameron – or Sarkozy’
Depending on who you listen to, either UK prime minister David Cameron bravely stood alone for Britain by rejecting a new EU treaty, or else he was beaten by the wily French president Nicolas Sarkozy who got what he wanted by the UK’s omission from the new deal around the Eurozone.
In fact, what the rupture showed was that both the six-footer Cameron and the diminutive Sarkozy are, to coin a phrase, pygmies in political terms. And so are German chancellor Angela Merkel and the rest of Europe’s political elite. Far from a triumph for anybody, it marked an embarrassing failure of basic diplomacy among substandard statesmen and women. There are always tensions and ructions at international summits. But in other times they would have been kept under control by careful diplomatic preparation and consultation beforehand – not left to break out in a schoolboy spat on the day, with Cameron and Sarkozy reportedly almost coming to blows. Even far more strident Eurosceptics such as Margaret Thatcher knew how to play the great power game without tripping over their own laces. Europe’s destiny is now in the hands of self-regarding pygmies who think more of their next headline than the shared future of the continent.
As for the notion that Cameron struck a noble blow for the British people and ‘our’ national sovereignty – come off it. Indeed, one of his main motives appears to have been to avoid giving the British people any kind of say on the matter, by dodging both the referendum that would be demanded if he accepted an amended EU treaty, and the general election that would follow if he went too far the other way and broke up his coalition with the EU-loving Liberal Democrats. The government would rather fall out with the French than risk the wrath of British voters.
Euro-myth No 2: ‘It was a national disaster for Britain, now isolated from Europe’
The many media and political voices peddling this line reveal more about the state of elite opinion in the UK than about Britain’s position in Europe. Listening to much of the doom-laden reportage and discussion across the BBC and elsewhere, you might imagine that the British Isles had overnight been swept off the map of Europe by a tsunami of historic proportions, rather than that there had been some unpleasantness at the eighth Euro-summit of the year.
This reflects the total commitment of the UK’s liberal elite to life within the safety of Europe’s institutions. It is not that they particularly love the EU and its bureaucratic regulations. It is more that they want to distance themselves from flag-waving British ‘populism’ – and especially from the masses whom they imagine to be a nationalist pogrom waiting to happen. As Frank Furedi pointed out on spiked yesterday, Tory Eurosceptics can now be publicly denounced as ‘fascists’, largely, it seems, because they might have a chance to connect with the anti-EU sentiments of the public. That is anathema to a British elite which would far rather see power exercised by the civilised dictators of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Commission than run the risk of empowering the democratic mob. Thus anything that rocks the Euro-boat is a ‘disaster’.
Behind the hysterical rhetoric of the past few days, however, it is unclear what – if anything- the outcome of the latest summit will change about Britain’s real position in Europe. The UK remains one of the largest economies in the European single market, while also remaining outside the central political and economic bloc, as it has been all along (the clue is in the pound rather than the Euro in our pockets, which did not suddenly materialise last week). In any case, it is not only the future of the UK, but of Europe, that is highly uncertain. If Britain is indeed to be ‘isolated’, the question remains – isolated from what, exactly?
Euro-myth No 3: ‘Europe is now united behind a plan to tackle its crisis’
Not only is Europe far from united, it still does not even have a plan to unite behind and it remains in denial about the depth of the crisis. The proposals for closer fiscal union in the future, which Germany and France got the Eurozone countries and others to sign up to last week, contained little or nothing in the way of practical measures to address the immediate financial crisis that threatens to sink the Euro. And perhaps more significantly, this alleged masterplan had nothing to say about how Europe might address the fundamental problem of low/no-growth economies that threatens to sentence us all to long-term depression.
One sort of ‘unity’ the Franco-German plan points to is an imposed system of compulsory austerity across Europe, through tighter central controls of national state spending and tax-raising. This looks like a planned merger of Europe under technocrats and accountants rather than a union of political democracies. It is ironic that the slogan of the new Euro-union might well be Thatcher’s old friend TINA – There Is No Alternative.
This is not only a failure of economic imagination, of course. It is a crisis of political leadership. The bunfight with Britain has distracted from the absence of any powerful common European outlook elsewhere. Despite their puffed-up pretensions, Merkel and Sarkozy are pale shadows of the postwar leaders such as Adenauer and de Gaulle who forged the vision of a united Europe. Under these political lightweights, we are set for more tensions and divisions between nations (including France and Germany) – and more importantly, more conflicts between Europe’s elites and its put-upon peoples. The one thing everybody should be able to agree upon is that there will be trouble ahead.
Euro-myth No 4: ‘Germany – it’s 1939 all over again!’
The role of Germany in plans to centralise financial power across the continent and emasculate democracy in indebted Eurozone nations has prompted much panicky talk of a resurgence of German domination in Europe, complete with cartoons of Merkel in Nazi uniform and snaps of the chancellor giving ‘Hitler-style’ salutes.
By all means let’s mention the war – so long as we don’t imagine we are still fighting it. Germany is certainly in a powerful position at the centre of Europe. But it is not powerful enough, either politically or even economically, to take over the continent and remake Europe in its image, even if it wanted to. Germany’s economy is dynamic compared to its European allies and competitors; but it is not as dynamic as it was. For example, it is in no position to pay for the reconstruction of Europe, as the USA did after the Second World War.
The political atmosphere in Europe bears no serious comparison to the situation in the run-up to the war. Many Germans seem uncertain that they want to take over the rest of Europe in any case – an understandable sentiment that has less do with any residual war-guilt than with the prospect of having to pay to bail out their ‘colonies’. For their part, many other Europeans appear highly ambivalent about Germany today. Behind the Nazi caricatures, there seems to be relatively little serious and coherent anti-German sentiment. Indeed, many are willing Germany to take a more active role in running the Eurozone. In a remarkable statement indicating how far we are from 1939, the foreign minister of Poland – the country the Nazis invaded in that year of destiny – recently declared in Berlin: ‘I fear German power less than German inaction’.
The current European conjunction might share with the 1930s a sense of uncertainty, depression and things spinning out of control. But the outcome is not set to be a repetition of history just yet.
Euro-myth No 5: ‘The UK coalition is on the brink of collapse over Europe’
That seems unlikely – and even if it were to happen, the current alternatives on offer would be little better in terms of democracy. Since Cameron’s return from the summit, the Tory prime minister and his Lib Dem deputy Nick Clegg have each been playing to their core support in parliament by staging mock set-piece battles over their slightly different attitudes to the EU. Meanwhile, the Labour opposition has called on the Lib Dems to leave the ‘Eurosceptic’ Conservatives and form a ‘real’ pro-Europe coalition with them.
This elite manoeuvring represents little more than an extension of the anti-democratic politics of Brussels into domestic affairs. (Indeed, it is always worth reminding ourselves that it was the decay of their idea of democracy within the nation state that led the European elites to seek refuge in the EU institutions in the first place.) None of the UK party leaderships is willing to offer the British people any say on our future in Europe, all of them remain adamantly opposed to any referendum, and none of them wants an election. However upset they may be with Cameron’s non-diplomacy, the Lib Dems want to hang onto their seats in government for the full five-year term; like all non-political politicians today, they hold no principle higher than their hold on power.
Far more than any isolation in Europe, it is their isolation from the people they are supposed to represent that has the political elites clinging together behind the Westminster drawbridge. In the unlikely event that the current coalition did fall, what difference would it make? Democracy has to involve more than just a vote – like being offered a choice between political alternatives for the future of the UK and Europe. What we need is not just the collapse or reconstitution of a coalition in parliament, but the emergence of political conflicts that mean something in society.
All in all, as the diplomatic dust settles from the Brussels summit, it becomes clear that there is more continuity than change so far. Europe still appears to be heading for an economic depression, while European democracy is heading for political bankruptcy. And Britain is not ‘isolated’ from either of those crises. There are no easy solutions on offer. But it might be a start if we could kick out the Euro-myths.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.
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