Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Eclipse of British Reason

BERLIN – When placed under too much strain, chains tend to break at the weakest link. Figuratively speaking, the same applies to the European Union. So the entire world quite naturally assumed that any process of EU disintegration would start primarily in the crisis-ridden European south (Greece, first and foremost). But, as British Prime Minister David Cameron has now demonstrated, the European chain is most likely to break not at its weakest link, but at its most irrational.

The United Kingdom – the homeland of pragmatism and realism, a country of unflappable principles and unmatched adaptability that stoically gave up its empire after successfully defending Europe’s freedom against Nazi Germany – has now lost its way. More precisely, it has been led astray by the Conservative Party’s ideological fantasy that certain EU powers can and should be returned to British sovereignty.

The UK’s national interests have not changed, and no fundamental shifts within the EU have worked against those interests. What has changed is Britain’s domestic politics: a prime minister too weak to control his roughly 100 anti-European backbenchers (call them the “High Tea Party”) in the House of Commons, and a Conservative establishment wary of the UK Independence Party’s rise, which could cost the Tories enough votes on the right to give Labour an electoral advantage.

Cameron claims that he does not want the UK to leave the EU. But his strategy – “renegotiation” of EU membership, followed by a British referendum on the new agreement – is the product of two illusions: first, that he can ensure a positive outcome, and, second, that the EU is able and willing to give him the concessions that he wants.

In fact, there is good reason to believe that such a course would take on a dynamic of its own, possibly leading to an unintended British exit from the EU. That would be a severe setback for the EU; for the British, blundering through history, it would be a veritable disaster.

While Britain surely would survive outside the EU, the quality of its existence is another matter. By exiting the EU, the UK would severely damage its economic interests, losing both the single market and London’s role as a financial center. An exit would also harm Britain’s geopolitical interests, both in Europe (where, ironically, it favors EU enlargement) and, worldwide, in its global standing and special relationship with the United States (which has made clear its preference for a European UK).

Unfortunately, Cameron’s track record in European politics does not inspire confidence in his ability to manage a different outcome. When, in 2009, he ordered the Conservative MEPs to withdraw from the European People’s Party, the Europe-wide grouping of center-right political forces, he merely deprived the Tories – now consigned to sit with the sectarians and obscurantists – of any influence in the European Parliament. By weakening the UK’s position within the EU, he ended up strengthening the Euro-skeptics within his party.

But, while Cameron should know from grim experience what is looming, it seems that he has abandoned rational considerations. Indeed, the belief that the EU would renegotiate Britain’s membership terms – which assumes, further, that Germany would not object – borders on magical thinking. Such a precedent would be applicable to the other member states, which would mean the end of the EU.

With all due respect to the UK, dismantling the EU as the price of its continued membership is an absurd idea. Cameron should recognize that his strategy cannot be allowed (even if he fears that a few cosmetic corrections to the treaty won’t help him at home).

In the meantime, the Tories risk losing their way on a crucial issue – reform of the relationship between the eurozone and non-euro EU members – if they try to use it as leverage to renegotiate the various European treaties. Britain knows that the euro’s survival requires much closer political integration, and also that London’s role as a financial center – as important for the UK as the nuclear industry is for France and the auto industry is for Germany – would be greatly damaged if the euro should fail.

Although no one should expect the British to join the euro any time soon, political leadership within the EU requires the acumen to take account of the central interests of one’s own country and those of the other member states without indulging in threats. This, however, requires an adequate understanding of those interests and a willingness to cooperate on the basis of mutual trust, which should be a given within the European family.

Speeches, particularly when delivered by leaders of great nations, can be useful, irrelevant, or dangerous. Cameron’s long-planned speech on Europe was postponed time and again. Perhaps he should have taken that as a sign that he should rethink his position.

He still can, before it is too late. The best starting point would be a re-reading of Winston Churchill’s famous speech in Zurich in 1946. “We must build a kind of United States of Europe,” urged Britain’s greatest twentieth-century statesman. That remains our task – and Britain’s – to this day.

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    1. CommentedGregory Marthews

      The Conservatives are just trying to take advantage of the EU's relative weakness at the moment. They don't see the ideal of leveling the playing field for the benefit of all, because they still see the world as 'Us' and 'Them', with the EU firmly in the latter. They want to go back to the good old days when they had absolute control, and they hope they can hoodwink the electorate into voting for it. Why do you think they would like the freedom to under cut their European neighbours? Because they wish to sell the British worker for a lower price on the international stage, for the betterment of the UK rather than the EU.

    2. CommentedCelt Darnell

      If you're going to quote Churchill -- get the context correct. Yes, he did say, “We must build a kind of United States of Europe.” He also said Britain would not be part of it.
      The old boy is proving prophetic. The overwhelming majority of Britons simply have no interest in being part of a federal Europe -- end of story.
      This actually has little to do with the Tory Party or any British tea party -- this has everything to do with what the majority believes.
      The British are leaving -- it's actually got very little to do with Cameron. But, if Herr Fischer actually spoke to ordinary Britons, he'd know that.

    3. CommentedAntónio Correia

      In these days, an increasingly wider consensus on the major flaws of the EU construction, over the last two decades, has emerged and can no longer be ignored: just remember the sinking of Titanic - a huge, record-breaking construction - one century ago...

      The Maastricht Treaty was announced as a "great leap FORWARD". Since then, only "FORWARD moves" have been allowed in the Maastricht-born "European Union" - mainly the creation of the "single currency" and the birth of a Eurozone with more and more states involved, according to their will and their capability of meeting the doubtful set of "Maastricht criteria" when joining the "single" currency area. Any move which may be seen as a "backward move" has been strictly forbidden, even if nobody can take for granted that this disunited "European Union" is moving forward to something that looks like the promised land. In fact, it is increasingly clear that this road is a "road to nowhere", besides being increasingly painful for more and more member states to go ahead, under the approach which has been adopted to "keep the markets calm" and "save the Euro" - while avoiding the appropriate fiscal transfers and resorting to lending under AUSTERITY constraints. In these days, the European Union has been repeatedly following the recommendation: "Keep moving FORWARD, either slowly or rapidly, either jointly or at several speeds!".

      Yes, as Paul Krugman recently said, "The Euro is a shaky construction". Besides ignoring the macroeconomic imbalances within the EU, in the "Maastricht criteria" for Eurozone membership as well as in the subsequent "stability" pacts, the Euro has been designed and confirmed – by Delors et al and followers – as a "single currency" instead of a (much more realistic) "common currency". Now, it is very clear that this was an IRRATIONAL choice, namely because other components of Delors's dream are missing - such as a European budget amounting, at least, to some "3% [!] of the European GDP".

      Two decades after the Maastricht Treaty, a COMPLETELY NOVEL EU TREATY is mandatory - not a mere set of "positive" , incremental amendments -, so as to avoid a sad situation, in the near future, where the foreseen "European common home" becomes replaced by a true "European house of correction", not compatible with essential democratic principles. Undoubtedly, this risk is very high for the EU member states that correspond to the "WEAKEST LINK" you mention. We need to build a true, democratic European Union through a cooperative European disunion, where the Euro survives as a "common", parallel currency - INCLUDING FOR THE UNITED KINGDOM and the other "non-Euro states" - but no longer as the "single currency" for a fraction of the EU (currently 17 out of 27 member states)

      [ ]:

      ” – The Euro should be a COMMON currency within the future EU – including the EU27 members outside the current ‘Euro Area’ – but not necessarily the SINGLE currency.
      - In this context, the coexistence of TWO parallel currencies should be allowed in each EU member state (under certain conditions, established in a novel European Treaty), within the framework of an appropriate “Cooperative European Disunion” .
      - Besides the “Common Euro”, the complementary currency in each member state could be either a “national currency” (…) or a completely new currency, shared by that member state and some other “compatible” EU member states, taking into account both the relevant macroeconomic issues and appropriate geographic, historic and cultural issues."

      We believe that this concise proposal can be a good basis for the required, flexible and realistic, "Plan B" - jointly saving the Euro and the European people.

    4. CommentedGiles Conway-Gordon

      Herr Fischer’s comment on the UK’s attitude to the EU is an excellent example of the superficial, tendentious and deeply cynical and irresponsible arguments now in general use by the European Union elite to counter criticism of the operation of the EU, of the political direction it is pursuing and of the likely damaging consequences of these.

      Herr Fischer pretends that the purpose of David Cameron’s speech was merely to solve a domestic political problem within the UK Conservative Party and that he is risking the wider future of the UK to defuse it. While this may well have been the trigger, Herr Fischer must be aware that the reason for the rise of the UK Independence Party and for the now widespread and steadily growing anti-EU sentiment among the UK’s citizens is the gathering objection to the way the original aims of the so-called ‘European Project’ (the free exchange of goods, services and people and the firm embedding of democracy in the continent of Europe, embodied in the European Economic Community), have been steadily subverted and altered, with negligible reference or accountability to the citizens of Europe, to become the comprehensive federal political system the European elite now look forward to.

      It may be true, as Herr Fischer states, that a necessary condition of the survival of the euro is ‘much closer political integration’ but it is deeply dishonest to maintain that the survival of the euro is thereby a necessary and valid reason for the imposition of a federal political system in the EU. The evidence, presently in Greece and before long in Portugal, Spain and Italy and in due course France, is that the structure and operation of the euro since its inception has led to a collapse of growth and to human misery on a colossal scale. The latest economic data from Spain confirm the continued collapse into depression.

      The only valid solution to this gathering disaster is that these countries are enabled to return to durable economic growth. This will not be possible while they share the same currency as Germany yet Herr Fischer’s compatriots continue to insist that austerity is the only answer. Even the IMF now acknowledges the error of this.

      (In February, 1996, before the launch of the Euro, Herr Fischer’s compatriot, Otmar Issing, then a board member of the Bundesbank, later first chief economist of the ECB and one of the advisers deeply involved in the creation of the Euro, wrote a short paper 'Europe: Political Union through Common Money' (published in the UK by the Institute of Economic Affairs). In it he set out his doubts as to the soundness and durability of the planned currency union. Recently, in an article in the Financial Times, he re-confirmed his sceptical view of the Eurozone structure. For him, one of the wise men present at its launch, the Euro is not irreversible.)

      All the evidence from economies, financial markets and societies since the start of the crisis has confirmed that the Euro is not simply unworkable in its present structure but catastrophically malign yet Herr Fischer, along with the rest of the European Union elite, insist that it is essential. The argument now presented is that because the euro cannot survive in the absence of political union, the EU must jettison democracy and move as soon as possible to authoritarian government by an unelected group of expert commissars with no democratic accountability worth the name. The peoples of Europe are to be sacrificed on the altar of the Euro.

      It is this decisive shift away from democracy and towards an unaccountable bureaucratic tyranny that is at the root of the concerns of the British people. It may be disobliging to say so but the concept and practice of democracy has much longer-established, deeper and stronger roots in the UK than in continental Europe. On the basis of the evidence so far, the EU and the EZ are heading for severe political trouble and, given the size of the imbalances involved, it is very difficult indeed to see an orderly solution. David Cameron was too polite to say so but it is time politicians like Herr Fischer started to behave like genuine democrats, listen to the people and preserve, rather than crush, democracy in Europe.

      Giles Conway-Gordon

    5. CommentedMareike Kleine

      Unfortunately, Churchill meant a United States of Europe without Great Britain.

      I wonder if a referendum is such a bad idea after all. The anti-EU anti-everything sentiment in the UK is there and is unlikely to be stifled by more "enlightened" leaders. From that perspective, it seems only rational for domestic politics reasons to try to tap that voter potential. I don't think he is really thinking he could renegotiate the British deal with a referendum whose outcome is far from certain.

      I'm not a fan of referendums. But this one, because it is a clear choice and there are clear benefits and costs from either option, might actually lead to a more reasonable debate in the UK and an informed pro-EU vote on the part of the UK public. Let's hope I'm not irrational...

    6. CommentedAndré Rebentisch

      You could spin that into a referendum on a new EU constitutional treaty. Furthermore, if Scotland decides to leave the Kingdom the Europeans would be happy to let them in. Scotland, Catalonia and Iceland could join prior to 2017, England & Wales could take a referendum on the new EU constitution as citzens in all the other member states. The new constitution would be a "Europe done right" and get citizens a democratic surplus.