Europe: Between Isolation and Solidarity - A Reply

, by Matthew Barker

Europe: Between Isolation and Solidarity - A Reply

Amongst most pro-Europeans it is commonly held that criticism is more sharply dealt than by Euro-skeptics. This is simply on the basis that such criticisms do not follow populist, ʻsitting targetsʼ and generally have a deeper understanding of the interplay between the Member States, the Institutions, and the wider world. I wish to deal in turn with each heading to show that not everything in Europe is destined to fail.

The Rise of Xenophobia

It is worrying to read that there is a rise in xenophobia anywhere in the world, what is more troubling is the clamouring by the fashionable liberal elites which views public opinion as something to be ignored. The liberal elites have for the last twenty years managed to ignore the concerns and wishes of their electorate for their own self congratulation.

Tolerance works both ways, how tolerant is it to exude one ideology whilst trying to suppress another simply because you disagree with it. Like it or not, but the rise of the far Right parties in the Nordics, the UK and in the East of Europe are not unusual in times of economic strife. What is unusual is the consternation by more centrist politicians and commentators that such parties have no right to voice their opinions. The BNP are a repugnant party, the majority of voters accept that and vote accordingly against them in general elections. However they do secure council seats, they have their leader in the European Parliament. That means that they have secured a legitimate democratic mandate to exercise office in some capacity or another. So why did 1 million vote for the BNP in the last election? Tolerance of the BNP is rooted in freedom of speech, and every politiciansʼ right to appeal to certain sections of society. Should we then look at denying people the vote simply because they did not vote Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat? There is a very short answer to that question, and that is No.

More troubling still is the direct example of using the US as a ʻmirrorʼ for how to be tolerant to all. In a society where if you are born black you are statistically more likely to end up in jail simply because of the colour of your skin - this is a disgrace and hardly indicative of tolerance. Furthermore since the tragic events of 9/11 the US has been on racial and cultural lockdown, making it more and more difficult for any nationality to enter their country with hugely draconian security measures. The US has been in two expensive (both in terms of human life and money) wars with little to show for it. Neither war was motivated for any real democratic value, and have been seen by many as deeply unpopular.

France was slapped on the wrist by the Commission with regards to their treatment of the Roma, however as a founding Member State with more political leverage than most, the Commission was never going to win without going directly to the European Court of Justice. As an aside, no action as of yet has been taken in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), it remains to be seen if any is taken as to what sanction would be imposed.

The Euro Crisis

This will have been written on to death, but bear with me. To simplify the reaction of the Northern European states as Protestant versus Catholic is simply unpleasant and hugely insulting. As a Catholic from the UK, there is no place for any such sectarian vitriol. Club Med economies are many things, but the religion of the states and their respective populations has absolutely nothing to do with it. A complete failure by the financial services across the Western world along with many governments positively encouraging the amassing of cheap debt as a way to get what you want, whenever you wanted it contributed to the current crisis. This is a simplification also, but it goes someway to dealing with the difficulties facing the mindsets of both Northern and Southern Europeans. A two speed Europe may actually be a more useful tool to get out of the current mess, but if it is to be done, then it must be done a short time frame with a full integration plan agreed on with strict rules governing accession by the worst offenders.

In 2004 Germany enacted quite severe austerity measures within its own economy, the government reigned in spending and subsequently has prospered during these straightened economic times. So the German state fixed its roof whilst the sun was still shining, thus minimizing the pain that would be felt come the inevitable bust. The EU, and in particular, the ECB did very little to encourage other states with less stable economies to follow suit. Unprecedented personal wealth and economic growth seemed too good to be true - and it was. Simply put, if you borrow, you have to pay it back, and sovereign states are no different. Taking Greece as an example of how badly austerity has had to bite shows an endemic reliance on public sector job creation, with golden handshake pensions and quite frankly bizarre conditions for retirement. The tipping point of such a system was that fairly corrupt regimes were buying votes. If you convince your electorate that they will never go hungry, have a home and a job to keep them secure, then what better way than to provide it yourself. In essence a distrust of capitalism in a pure form bred such an explosion in public sector appointments. It was never affordable, it was never sustainable, there is no wealth generation of the type that could cover such huge costs.

The Eurozone bailout is not a free meal ticket to being made solvent. Consequences of economic mis-management must be felt by some. Unfortunately the cuts made in the Greek economy are too deep and too late. The shock treatment is not making the patient any better and there is a growing anxiety within the markets, and the other 26 Member States as to what Greece does next. Euro bonds are one way - but the German state seems dead set against this. How much longer before Germany is brought to heel by bigger forces than its ability to export?

It was mentioned that the EU will lack democracy and an identity - this should be wholly rejected as an argument as for a 60 year old project it has plenty of identity and democratic legitimacy - in fact since Lisbon the EP has grown up and is now a much bigger, more effective force for change than ever before. It is early days, such a crisis will test even the most seasoned and stable of democratic institutions, we need not pile on more pressure just because there is no ʻsilver bulletʼ to solve such a complex issue.

The Lack of Foreign Policy

This is an area that I have to agree primarily with the sentiment of, the EU looks weak and incoherent in its current set up. This has been compounded by the UN General Assembly voting down a motion for the EU to accede to its chamber. Foreign policy is an unusual creature, states prefer to keep their own interests of paramount concern, this is seen most sharply in the UN Security Council. For the EU to become a more coherent and powerful force it needs to look less at militarized interventions and more in the diplomatic sphere, being a skilled negotiator with common values, common goals, dropping the quasiimperialistic tendencies for ʻspreading democracyʼ.

France and the UK showed how decisive the EU needs to be in times of crisis with their actions in Libya. NATO was eventually convinced to bring its might to protect civilians, but there is an overwhelming sense that even NATO doesnʼt have the stomach for such battles. The EU is clearly waiting for something, what that is, is firm leadership, with a vision for the future, less linked with outcomes and so-called deliverables, but more about aspirations and a feeling of solid authority. Baroness Ashton does not embody any of the above, and the rather insidious van Rompuy is not trusted much as a figure-head after several high profile gaffs.

The question of the accession of Turkey is one that has bubbled since 1963, we are no closer today than we were a decade ago. Perhaps a bit of direct democracy across the Union to gauge public opinion on the matter would give any negotiations more credibility, and perhaps go some way to assuaging the fears on both sides as to the final outcome of any accession agreement. If you want to bang on about democratic values and principles, then this is a perfect platform for the EU to ask its masters, Member Statesʼ populations, what they want and to actually to listen to them.

Weaknesses of Leadership within the EU

An interesting statistic was brought to bear that only 28 German MPs remain since the fall of the Berlin Wall. What this is supposed to prove I am unsure. Since 20 years have passed Iʼm sure that many who were politically active have long since retired. Fresh blood and new ideas should not be misconstrued as an affront to the ideals of the ʻancien regimeʼ. If Germany lacks confidence in the EU then they should look at the role they play in the institutions. Is it more a question that Germany since reunification no longer has the money to both rebuild its own back-yard and bail out others and simply wants to see a return on its investments? If that is so, is that such a bad thing, it certainly goes hand in hand with accountability, both economic and democratic. The Commission recently acknowledged its poor practice of simply signing cheques with no reasonable follow-up tocheck the money had been spent wisely. It has since changed fundamentally how it dishes out the old ʻregional fundsʼ and has quite rightly attached more obligations to any money sent out.

What Consequences?

From all that froth, will the EU fail? Ultimately it will fail if Member States start to split and faction off, if we have a state of play where the UK or Germany asks to leave, then we have a problem. The realities of such an occurrence are sadly muffled by the rabid Euroskeptics such as UKIP. In a time of austerity and much pessimism, we need more active participation in the European project, roundly criticizing those who wish to put the brakes on some issues of cross border policy does not mean a rapid descent onto the slippery slope to failure. If we are to defeat elements that wish to destroy the EU, then suppression is not the way forward. Convictions and ideas are necessary, but political will is sadly lacking in the centre of European politics - the far Right and far Left have stolen a march on us all - it is time to wake up.

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