What future for a polarised Europe?

Andrew Jones

Originally published in 1996/1997, Issue 1

It is a paradox of modern day politics that an issue of such immense constitutional and practical significance to the future of Britain as that of further European integration, which excites such great activity amongst politicians, should be treated with such disinterest or hostile ignorance by the general public.

But the reason for this is not, as many politicians seem to believe, that the people do not think that Europe is important. Furthermore, there exists a feeling of disillusionment with the European Union which has been brought about by the adversarial and extremist way in which the debate has so far been conducted.

Since Britain joined the Community in 1973, discussion of its problems and merits has moved away from the sublime and towards the ridiculous. We are seeing today a polarisation of views on Europe’s future between strident federalist centralisation on the one hand, and fervent nationalism on the other. The public are being increasingly forced into the mistaken view that one of these two extremes must be adopted. But both outlooks contain gross inadequacies which render each self-defeating.

The federalist “pro-European” approach is that represented most strongly by the former President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, and has also been attributed to the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and Conservative “wets”. It seems to stress, in near Marxist tones, the inevitability of political union following on from economic union – and furthermore that his result is highly desirable and should be obtained as quickly as possible.

But it is a noticeable tendency of the Union to forever be attempting to sprint before it can toddle. After the two-year nightmare of the ratification process of the Maastricht Treaty, which did not even involve very much political union as such but was more concerned with economic and internal cooperation, then no sooner than her Majesty’s signature upon the British ratification Act was dry, then plans were made for another Inter- Governmental Conference three years later. So instead of Maastricht being allowed to settle down and begin to work effectively, it is likely that the Turin IGC, which is now upon us, will bring forward even more contentious proposals which will start the whole process off again.

However, what is most reprehensible about this “ever closer union at ever increasing speed” attitude, is the utter contempt which is shown by its advocates towards the opinions of anyone who lacks their misplaced enthusiasm. Following the narrow rejection of the Maastricht Treaty in the Danish Referendum in 1992, instead of listening to Denmark’s objections and trying to compromise to keep everybody on board, it was commonly put about Brussels that Denmark should just be thrown out. What is the point of having an organisation of states which dumps its members at the first hint of disagreement?

What with the lack of democracy already inherent in the European institutions, this rather dictatorial attitude does nothing to encourage the people of Europe to consent to greater political union. At a recent talk at Aberystwyth, former Tory MP Sir Anthony Mayer extolled, as a virtue of the union, the fact that it could do things which national politicians did not have the courage to do because it would cause political unpopularity. He then went on to say that the Minister could shrug his shoulders and blame it all on big, bad Brussels.

But if that is the case, then who can the people hold accountable? However much you strengthen the powers of the European Parliament it will never be a particularly effective assembly because of the vastness of the area which it represents, consisting of 369 million people. But to have national ministers telling their electorate that it is all the fault of Brussels, hardly does much to encourage European sentiment and just further promotes the widely held feeling that the Union is run by an unelected and unaccountable elite who take no notice of the will of the people that they control.

Also, it has to be asked whether the ideal for which they so ardently strive is a particularly desirable one. With the fall of Communism and the collapse of Yugoslavia, it seems a very inappropriate time in history to be building huge, centralised federal structures, comprising many completely diverse people, all controlled by an undemocratic, socialist elite.

The Euro-sceptics, represented these days most strongly be the Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Portillo, and the Tory extreme right, are the antithesis of this view. They display, with equal arrogance, their infantile ideas of nationalism. The logical conclusion of this approach would be conversely that Britain should declare the last twenty-three years to have all been a complete waste of time and to secede from the union.

But apart from the damage this would do to Britain’s international reputation, it is simply absurd to suggest we could ever survive on our own. In an increasingly interdependent world – especially after the end of the coexistence of the Cold War – the new field of warfare will be trade and if Britain were to be outside any major trading bloc, it would not have a hope of competing with America, Japan or the European Union itself. We would be stripped bare of all influence and strength in the world and would probably, sooner or later, have to beg for re-entry on humiliating terms as simply geography leaves us nowhere else to effectively trade with.

It is irresponsible in the extreme for politicians to attack and ridicule the Union at every opportunity as it only leads us nearer to this outcome which most, at least publicly, repudiate. How can Mr Portillo now have any credibility among his European counterparts after his infamously puerile sarcasm at the Conservative Party Conference in 1995? However, it has to be said that politicians are only as good as the people they represent. Mr Portillo only says those things because he knows it will get him votes and it is a shame that the whole issue has degenerated to that level. It is public opinion therefore which must be changed.

There is a middle way – that of Euro-realism. This does not seem to be particularly identifiable with anyone at the moment, such is the political necessity of taking an extremist position. But you do not have to accept this all or nothing approach. The most constructive way forward is for everyone to be realistic and to accept the Union’s limits. The creation of a federal super state and complete monetary and political union is just not going to happen under present condition – so it is pointless, as well as damaging, to push towards it.

Similarly, the idea that Britain might go it alone is also not a realistic option – so politicians and the media should not whip up anti-European hysteria. We are staying in the Union, so we might as well try and cooperate with it. People like Delors and Portillo both do equal damage to the so-called European ideal – that unity is strength – the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. From this basis we should look rationally and sensibly at each question of European integration upon its merits and ask ourselves three questions. Is it in our combined and national interests? Is it accepted by the majority of Europeans? And – above all – is it practicable?

For example, the future of Eastern Europe is one such issue which is hijacked by extremists. The Euro-enthusiasts call for deepening of the Union so as to exclude these backward countries by making it increasingly harder for them to join, abandoning them to their economic fate against a massive Western European trading bloc. The Euro-sceptics call for widening simply as a means of watering down the Union and destroying it that way.

It would be an act of unforgivable negligence and stupidity, to abandon our Eastern neighbours. It is hypocrisy to talk about building a stronger Europe whilst ignoring half of the continent just because they are poorer than us. It is also true however that we could not simply let them into full membership tomorrow as it is not in any of our best interests to see the Union brought to its knees by holding up the economies Eastern Europe. But they must be admitted gradually – they must be helped up to out level without our going down to their’s. And if this means a slowing down of our integration to accommodate them, then so be it – it is certainly the worthiest alternative.

On a single currency, it is not just a polarised question of no national currencies and complete control of all the national economies versus the status quo. Surely some workable method of a common currency, existing alongside national currencies and stabilising them, whilst acting as a trading, business and tourist currency, can be found. The Prime Minister suggested a “hard Ecu” at Maastricht in 1991, but it was brusquely rejected by the other members – their eyes uncompromisingly set on currency union at any price.

Some form of common currency will probably prove economically necessary so it is practicable that Britain should stay on the inside of these discussions. The policy of the opt- out and the empty chair should only be employed as a last resort. But the whole question should be taken slowly, one step at a time. The current deadline of 1999 for a single currency will not be practicable. What is not helpful is to have the Finance Ministers engaged in highflown and pointless arguments about what to call such a currency.

But above all, what is crucial to the future success of Europe, without it breaking up as the two extremes react against each other, is the adoption of a careful, moderate, intrinsic approach, considering each issue upon its merits and then slowly implementing it and giving it time to work and become accepted, or to show that it is unworkable, before moving on to the next level. Without an atmosphere of extremist rhetoric, issues can be looked at constructively with a view to making them work and strengthening the Union as a result -rather than the dogged pursuit of some unrealistic ideology. It may take many years, but it is better than us falling apart amidst hopeless squabbles.

What is central to the effective survival of the Union however is the retention of the now disappearing national veto. Its use of course would only be as a last resort – the idea is for it to have a deterrent effect, forcing the Council of Ministers to ensure that no-one felt obliged to use it. The proper way to proceed is by consensus, by the Council finding the lowest common denominator and then building on it as far as each country is prepared to go. If they can go no further then the matter is not one for action at a European level. That would be the true test of subsidiarity.

Cooperation can only work through persuasion, not by imposition or haughtily carrying on regardless without the objectors. There is no need for such a two-speed Europe. That would largely rob the Union of its strength – which derives from its unity. The hope is that eventually attitudes will soften, people will moderate their views and agree on a more sensible and realistic solution. In the meantime we can continue to enjoy the benefits of unity. Statesmen can only go as far as their electorate will let them so, by adopting a more conciliatory approach, then the standing of Europe in the eyes of the people will elevate from its current lowly position and electorates will then allow their representatives more room for manoeuvre.

But the poisoned atmosphere which is currently being created by two irreconcilable extremes, each acting as a stimulant to the other’s prejudice, will just tear Europe further apart. Unless we can find some common ground, however little, on which to build, then there is no future for the Union. Only the utilisation of realism and plain common sense provides any hope for bringing the people back on board, before it is too late.