There was an interesting item on Radio 4’s Today this morning, interesting not necessarily in what it said, but that in a way it was a first of its kind. I happen to be a ‘eurosceptic’ in that from my, possibly limited, knowledge of human behaviour and the history of European nations, I believe that the prospect of welding us all together into one joyous whole is just so much pie in the sky. (The less wise EU enthusiasts point to the United States of America and claim that if it can be done there it can be done here. They completely ignore that the genesis of the U.S. was wholly different in that the union evolved and that it was by no means painless given that the Civil War claim the lives of many hundreds of thousands. That’s why the wiser EU enthusiasts make no such comparison.)
The piece on the radio this morning, with, on the one side Karl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, and on the other a eurosceptic called Derek Scott, who was Tony Blair’s economics advisor when Blair was PM, asked whether in the light of a variety of different problems faced by the EU, it could be seen to be slowly falling apart again. It isn’t just the eurozone crisis which is destabilising the EU, but real problems with the Schengen agreement and the growing popularity of anti-EU political parties. Scott, naturally, given his field of expertise, dealt mainly with the euro crisis and again highlighted its internal contradiction (which were pointed out by eurosceptics when the euro was launched) which mean a monetary mechanism intended to help the different EU economies to converge is, in fact, making them diverge. The problems with the Schengen agreement, under which EU citizens are allowed to move between EU countries freely without check stem from the arrival in Italy of refugees from the troubles in North Africa, mainly Tunisia, who are then being allowed by Italy to move off into France (where, given France’s colonial history, they feel more at home). France, naturally, is crying foul, has said such refugees should be dealt with by the first EU country they enter and has again begun checking the documents of those arriving at its borders.
The rise of nationalist parties hostile to the EU has also carried on, with the electoral success of the True Finns in Finland. (I must be honest and admit I had never heard of the ‘True Finns’ until about three days ago, and perhaps you hadn’t either, but they are real and now have a sufficiently large number of MPs to be a force to be reckoned with in Finland.)
Here in Britain there have been quiet a few eurosceptics prophesying the imminent demise of the EU — it would be truer to say they have been praying for it — but until now they have largely belonged to the lunatic fringe of EU opponents and are rarely taken seriously by anyone but themselves. What was interesting about the Radio 4 piece and how it dealt with the possible slow disintegration of the EU was that it is anything but in the lunatic fringe of any movement, and given Auntie BBC’s usual chaste insistence on ‘balance’, I should imagine there was a small degree of soul-searching and ‘referring up’ before it was agreed the piece could be broadcast.
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One other aspect of a possible slow disintegration of the EU alluded to by the piece was a growing North/South divide in Europe. The whole point about the EU, or one of them, was that ‘we are all in this together, the smallest member state is as important as the largest’ blah-blah, which was always a piece of idealistic fiction. The eternal dynamics of the group again came into play, as, of course, they had to, and the richer, stronger nations began to call the shots. Now we have a situation in which several of the Med EU states are in financial shit and the North EU states are being expected to bail them out, which is not going down at all well with the taxpayers of those North EU states. Now there’s a surprise.
What would happen if the EU were to ‘shrink’ again, to reconstitute itself into a smaller group of more responsible members? The first thing to say is that it simply wouldn’t happen like that, although there has been talk of a caucus being formed of all the stable eurozone economies within the eurozone. But I doubt whether the current crop of EU bigwigs would ever contemplate a situation where they would be left with a great deal of egg on their faces. It is more likely that they would carry on admiring the emperor’s new clothes until the time came for them to retire with their reputations and dignity intact on a fabulous pension, leaving a new crop off apparatchiks to clear up the mess.
And what of Greece, Portugal and Spain? It might be tactless to say so, but in historical terms they have all comparatively recently been dictatorships, and their reaction to economic adversity might not be the same as that of those EU states of a more calvinistic bent. Spain, the largest of the three, has a huge problem with youth unemployment, and the young tend to get restless rather faster than we old farts. I heard the BBC’s economics correspondent admit that other night that the question now being asked is not whether Greece will go bust, but when. Will Germans be happy to carry on shelling out more of their taxes to sustain Greece? All together now: No, of course they bloody won’t! But that is not what the EU idealists want to hear. They want to cling to the dream that ‘we’re all in this together, come hell or high water’.
A future problem for the EU is growing corruption in those member states which were once part of the Soviet bloc. Old habits die hard and the survival strategies employed when the communists were still in charge are proving to be just as lucrative these days under the evil EU empire (or something. That was a joke: I like to think I am NOT part of the anti-EU lunatic fringe). It seems this corruption is not, as one might think, restricted to former Soviet bloc states in the southern part of Europe, such as Romania and Bulgaria. The three Baltic members have also found that their politicians are finding it hard keeping their sticky fingers out of the till.
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Then there’s the small matter of the EU’s request for an increase in its budget, and increase which is higher than eurozone inflation, so it’s not just a question of sitting tight until times is better, guv. So you really do have to ask whether the European Commission is firing on all cynlinders or is, perhaps, not the teeniest bit out of touch. Well, it’s the latter, of course. Whether of not an increase over an above inflation is warranted, you have to conclude that the EC is ineffably politically naive to make its demand at a time when the rest of Europe is being urged to tighten its belt, and the people of Greece, Ireland and Portugal have absolutely no choice in the matter. And do we really want such dumbos making decisions for us? That, by the way, is a rhetorical question.