Nation and Super-Nation: England, Britain, Europe.
I detest Tories mostly for what they do to the social and economic fabric of the nation, enriching the privileged and squeezing the dispossessed, but their current antics over Europe add to my despair. (I hasten to add that many Tories are actually lovely people – some of my best friends have even met some….)
You see, they keep going on as if we had a choice of being part of Europe or not.
We no more have a choice of continent than we have a choice of parent. We are European; we have a common history since we were all conquered by the Romans. We’re family.
So the debate is not in or out of Europe, but in or out of Europe’s ruling cliques. We find many of them annoying in the same way that we find our siblings annoying.
There is a lot wrong with the institutions of Europe; most of them badly need some reform. Reform will be good for all the member states, because, you know, that same thing about America and General Motors. What’s good for Europe is good for Britain (and vice versa).
According to the backbench Tory approach, the best way to achieve this reform is to threaten to flounce. Flouncing was a pretty pathetic negotiating ploy when we were adolescents; it didn’t work then because we always had to come grovelling back for dinner and, because we’re like geographically, culturally and economically attached, we can’t flounce off out of Europe either. We’ll just end up stranded on the cold side of the door we slammed behind us.
No, we’ve got to grow up and negotiate as equals with our partners, build alliances, put forward our case and advocate boring but essential reforms. Changes to the Court of Auditors to force transparent accounts. More power to the Parliament, to balance the democratic deficit. Keep regulation simple and focused on the single market. Harmonisation and localisation according to the principles of subsidiarity: eurobuzzword Bingo! This reforming agenda needs statesmanlike leadership which our politicians, on all sides, sadly lack. Dealings with Europe are presented as protecting Britain’s interests – good – as if these are somehow antithetical to European interests. They’re not. Repeat ad nauseam: what’s good for Europe is good for Britain and vice-versa.
Tories often refer to Churchill (not as often as they do to Thatcher though). For the post-war settlement, Churchill favoured a United States of Europe, of which Britain would not be a member. If it was good enough for Churchill, it’s good enough…. Except, it isn’t. Churchill was an imperialist and he saw Britain in terms of its empire including the Dominions. In 1945 that included a great deal of Africa as well as India, but the sun would soon set on it. The empire had fed us during the war but at a terrible cost. Food miles were expensive in terms of seamen’s lives as well as bunker oil. Practically and economically we needed to build trading links closer to home, and Churchill’s imperialist vision was no longer morally or economically sustainable. As the leaders of mainland Europe built structures to replace conflict with co-operation, Britain looked anxiously from the sidelines, enduring the Gallic non until 1973.
Now there are 28 member states, and the constitution developed for six is creaking. Europe has changed and continues to change. Reform is essential, but it’s not about renegotiating Britain’s relationship with Europe: that’s fixed, we’re a part of it. It’s about developing a robust, flexible constitution based on the three essential freedoms of the Treaty of Rome, that will work for a new and expanding Europe, one that could include Turkey soon and might well go on to include nations on the other side of the Mediterranean basin which also share a Roman heritage.
In the shorter term, it has to address two pressing issues which have so far been neglected or fudged. The first is to adopt a mechanism that allows for newly-independent states to continue in membership, which may mean Scotland, depending on the result of September’s plebiscite. It should be a given that citizens of Europe cannot be deprived of their freedoms. The second is to deal with the problem of the Euro. The Euro is a great idea, badly implemented; it was lucky to survive the aftermath of 2008. Trade across a single market with multiple currencies is bound to be more costly than using a single currency, simply because of the exchange costs; so if we want to make the single market work, we really need to make the Euro work. But while it is broken (and without banking union, it is broken), member states retaining their own currencies must not be put at a regulatory disadvantage: the trade disadvantage is bad enough. Mr Osborne is right to ask for some safeguards, although the manner of his doing so is regrettable and his motives suspect: he will protect his chums at all costs. If the Eurozone does manage to reform its institutions, strengthening the ECB so that its monetary firepower is unrestricted, and implementing banking union, the case for British membership would be revived. It will need a political revolution here, but it may still be economically desirable in the end. It is quite possible that national currencies including both the pound and the Euro will eventually become entirely irrelevant, superseded by independent, non-national digital currencies such as BitCoin, but that’s quite a long way off.
If the Scots do secede, and rather selfishly I hope they don’t because of the English electoral arithmetic, England too will become a nation again. Its economy will be even more dominated by London. London is Europe’s most influential city. It is our New York and Brussels could become our Washington, Edinburgh our Boston, Amsterdam our New Orleans, Barcelona our San Francisco, Frankfurt our Chicago. Add Helsinki, Copenhagen, Paris, Rome, Venice, Athens, Prague, Budapest… one can love Europe just for its cities.
I suppose I should mention Mr Farage. He is, with Mr Salmond and Mr Johnson, one of the few charismatic politicians active today. Each is more demagogue than statesman. But for all that I disagree with him, he is perhaps the only hope we leftie English have of defeating the Tories here should our tartan comrades desert us.