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The European dream is in dire need of a reality check

Voter trust in the EU falls to record low. So proclaimed the front page of today's Guardian. In every one of the big European states, trust has gone into "a vertiginous decline". Five years ago, no country, not even Britain, showed more than half its voters hostile to Europe, and most were strongly supportive. Now, according to the EU's own Eurobarometer, distrust runs at 53% in Italy, 56% in France, 59% in Germany, 69% in the UK and 72% in Spain. The EU has lost the support of two thirds of its citizens. Does it matter?

Nothing brings out the tribe in all of us like the issue of Europe. Voters reach deep into their political psyche to find comfort or aversion in the idea of European union. Any piece of news is adapted to fit. EU apologists regard this week's news as inevitable given the politics of austerity, widely seen as punishing ordinary people for the profligacy of recent European leaders. In time of trouble, voters take refuge in nation and locality. It will not last.

To sceptics this will not wash. Majorities should matter to democrats, however inconvenient. "Anti-Europeanism" was growing across Europe even before the credit crunch - witness the Lisbon treaty referendums. It is reflected in the rise of nationalist parties and is rampant even among such one-time EU loyalists as Spain, Italy, Greece and Germany. As the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, José Ignacio Torreblanca, said of yesterday's poll, "The damage is so deep that it does not matter whether you come from a creditor or debtor country citizens now think their national democracy is being subverted."

Even the EU president, José Manuel Barroso, knows he has a problem. He complained this week of a "lack of understanding", both of the politics of austerity and of "who does what, who decides what, who controls whom And where are we heading to?" A resulting "resurgence of populism and nationalism" was threatening his "European dream". Yet he remains in denial that his dream is just that.

Dreams make dangerous politics, and when they require the imposition of "yet more Europe" against the run of public opinion, they are badly in need of a reality check. The new requirement that the EU (in this case Germany) imposes budgets on indebted states goes far beyond anything domestic voters seem likely to tolerate.

Barroso's dream is becoming the vision espoused by the Columbia professor of European history István Deák, who demanded last year in the New York Times "a new imperial construct" as the only alternative to save the continent from a "revival of tribalism". To Deák this new empire was "a sacred task an almost religious goal: a new European faith that belongs to no church".

This sort of talk has always led Europe down the road to catastrophe. It was the dream of the Inquisition, the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon's viceroys and Hitler's gauleiters. Today it cloaks the meddling regulations and unaudited fraud of the ever-burgeoning EU. The idea that such an empire can orchestrate the disciplines of the euro and still win the consent of Europe's peoples is absurd. Democratic deficits cannot last long before lapsing into dictatorship or mob rule. The history of Europe proves that people will not tolerate conquest, whether by bullet or bureaucrat.

Angela Merkel's bankers may be powerful, but the eurozone's "troika" of inspectors cannot hope to rule for ever. Imagine if they had their hands on France and Spain. This German proto-empire may have been acquired, like Britain's 18th-century one, "in a fit of absence of mind", but if there is one achievement on which modern Europe can surely rest its case, it is that of national democracy. There is no way the EU can supplant it through consent.

Europe is not a seamless democratic state. It is the construct of a treaty between disparate sovereign states, all in varying degrees of revolt against it. As Merkel's careful courtship of David Cameron shows, his domestic travails over Europe are not his alone. Every European government is looking over its shoulder at a soaring scepticism, some sincere, some undeniably sinister. Even a majority of Germans are now anti-EU, and a third want the deutschmark back.

Only a constitutional illiterate could imagine a fancy European institution calling Brussels to account. The present EU parliament has no ministerial responsibility, no governing party discipline and reflects no identifiable interest, culture or "demos". MEPs represent an agglomeration of greed, voting always for more spending. EU accountability is only to the council of ministers and, through them, to domestic voters. We once wondered how. Now we know, from public opinion galvanised by the toxicity of the euro - the EU's very own "poll tax".

That said, leaders such as Cameron, Merkel and the new rulers of France and Italy are still obliged to lead. The introduction of the euro may have led to a true parting of ways, between more Europe and less Europe. But even less Europe means some Europe. If and when Barroso wakes from his dream, there must be some reality.

Treaties are not for ever, but nation states are. Those that are part of Europe must deal with each other. They must discipline their commerce in the widest sense, or they will lapse back into tit-for-tat duties, retaliatory embargos, cod wars, border controls and beggar-thy-neighbourliness. Brussels may be a parody of the Tower of Babel, but a trading bloc still needs a tower if it is to retain competitive potency in the world.

Cameron and the sceptics therefore need to be constructive to be plausible. They need to argue for a European Bretton Woods, to write off bad debts and recalibrate regional economies by returning to revalued regional currencies. They need to propose European institutions that respect national politics and character, not just grab more power to the centre. There needs to be a sceptics' vision of Europe.

Closer European union was an answer to war. After that it offered an answer to communist dictatorship. In both it could claim success. Finally, at Maastricht in 1992, it flew too near the sun. It pretended that one currency traded within a single politico-economic space could overcome economic diversity and yield a common wealth. It overreached itself. In refusing to recognise this failure, Barroso and his colleagues now risk jeopardising even Europe's earlier successes.

[Source: By Simon Jenkins, The Guardian, London, 25Apr13]

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small logoThis document has been published on 29Apr13 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.