Almost overnight, euroenthusiasts have folded their tents and abandoned the field. Television editors, unable to find any elected representatives prepared to argue for closer integration, keep having to make do with a former Labour MEP called Richard Corbett, who now works for European Council President Herman Van Rompuy. Barely a week passes without another pro-Brussels columnist turning his coat and claiming to have had his doubts all along (Matthew Parris and Max Hastings are among the most recent to have issued gracious recantations). Paddy Ashdown, a long-standing federalist, now says that it would be better for the single currency to break apart.
Commentators who have spent years singing paeans of praise to the European project are chanting threnodies over its coffin. No less an Establishment europhile than Sir Stephen Wall, the man who ran Britain’s European policy under John Major and Tony Blair, now says: “We have seen the high point of the European Union. With a bit of luck it will last our lifetime, but it’s on the way out.” Sir Stephen is 64.
I can’t help feeling that we’re getting a little bit ahead of ourselves. We empirical British often make the mistake of thinking that, because something can’t work, it won’t happen. It’s what we said about Soviet Communism and, of course, we were ultimately right. But it wouldn’t have been much fun to have been born in Moscow in 1910 and lived through the process of it not working. There is, as Adam Smith said, a deal of ruin in a nation — or in a union.
The logical response to the euro crisis would be to recognise that it was wrong to jam widely divergent countries into a single set of policies. While there are no easy outcomes from here, the least bad option would be an orderly unbundling of the euro, allowing the peripheral states to devalue and begin exporting their way back to growth.
Instead, eurocrats are determinedly doing the opposite. Integration wasn’t working, so they have decreed more integration, demanding that monetary union be buttressed by fiscal union. Debt levels are excessive, so they have created more debt, forcing loans on to countries that are already overwhelmed by their existing liabilities. Countries are struggling to meet the costs of their state bureaucracies, so they have replicated those costs at Brussels level, increasing the EU budget under the guise of stimulus spending. For two years now, Eurocrats have been doling out great spoonfuls of the medicine that sickened the patient in the first place.
What the devil are they thinking? Their attempts to prop up the euro fly in the face of every economic theory, Left or Right. In the best case scenario, that is, where the euro doesn’t collapsein chaos, they will have condemned the peoples of the Mediterranean to a generation of deflation, poverty and unemployment, and those of northern Europe to massive tax rises. Do they truly not understand where they are going wrong?
The question is perhaps best answered by quoting Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” The EU has always fed, to a greater extent that is generally supposed, on a sense of inevitability. People might not like ceding their democratic rights to Brussels but, as long as they believe that there is no alternative, they resign themselves to the process.
The unravelling of monetary union would call the entire project into question, and thus the jobs of several fonctionnaires. Those fonctionnaires are accordingly ready to pay any price to hold the euro together or, rather, to get the rest of us to pay, since EU employees are exempt from national taxation. An idealistic euro-integrationist, who thinks he is supporting peace and brotherhood, might be relied on to support the project when pushed. But a euro-apparatchik, for whom the EU is a question of mortgage payments and school fees, will fight for it as fiercely as a Gaddafi loyalist following his chief into the desert.
By euro-apparatchik, I don’t simply mean someone who is directly on the EU’s payroll. One of the more ingenious tactics pursued by integrationists over the years has been to build up a corpus of fellow travellers within the member states. Thus, for example, most European universities employ “Jean Monnet Professors”, who can be relied upon to push the Brussels line without regard for academic neutrality. Virtually every local authority over a certain size employs one or more “Europe officers”, their wages paid by local ratepayers, but their livelihoods wholly dependent on the EU. Every charity over a certain size does the same thing, as does every large corporation and every lobby group.
A couple of years ago, the EU held a two-day conference in Brussels for “representatives of civil society”. Around 500 people turned up, representing bodies ranging from the European Cyclists’ Federation to the European Women’s Lobby. Their recommendations were unanimous: what “civil society” wanted, they said, was for the EU massively to extend its jurisdiction. Intrigued, I put down a parliamentary question asking how many of the groups represented received grants from the EU. Eventually the answer came back: all of them.
The sums involved can be huge. Christian Aid, for example, has had €27,109,352.12 from the EU over the past four years. Small wonder that it campaigns for Brussels to agglomerate more powers under the guise of fighting climate change. When David Miliband cited Oxfam as a supporter of the European Constitution, he didn’t mention that it had been given €37,449,517.55 by the European Commission that year alone. Remember that the next time one of these mega-charities-cum-lobbyists asks you for cash.
Here is where the EU’s strength rests. Not among the benign cranks of the European Movement or the Union of European Federalists, but in the legions of EU-funded consultants, contractors, seconded civil servants, big landowners and NGOs. They are the nomenklatura of our age.
One has to be careful in using such words, of course. The EU is not the Soviet Union. It doesn’t take away our passports or throw us into gulags and, while it doesn’t pretend to be democratic in its own structures, it rests ultimately upon the consent of 27 democratic nations.
There is one sense, though, in which the parallel can be fairly drawn. The Communist cadres who seized power in Central and Eastern Europe in the 1940s believed that the force of their ideology trumped any considerations of freedom, democracy or the rule of law. They saw Marxism-Leninism as both irrefutable and inexorable and, while they had no intention of allowing their doctrines to be rejected at the ballot box, many of them sincerely hoped that the suspension of democracy would be temporary. Once socialism had proved its superiority, once it had shown itself to be more economically efficient than capitalism as well as more just, it might be possible to move to a phased restoration of parliamentary rule.
Such reasoning was shaken by the Hungarian rising of 1956 and obliterated by the Prague Spring of 1968. After that date, the apparatchiks gave up trying to persuade their electorates. Instead of agreement, they demanded acquiescence; instead of conviction, consent. The dots and commas of Das Kapital became far less important than the maintenance of their place in society.
Something similar has happened to eurocrats. In the early days, the Brussels institutions were dominated by true believers, convinced that, in burying nationalism, they were burying war. They, too, saw the lack of democracy as contingent: once the people saw the benefits of European integration, it would be possible to make the system more accountable. Their Prague Spring moment came in 2005, when 55 per cent of French voters and 62 per cent of Dutch voters rejected the European Constitution. The mood change in Brussels was immediate and palpable. One of my friends, a senior French eurocrat, asked wretchedly: “How can the voters have drifted so far away from me?” (It is human nature, I suppose, to place oneself at the centre of the universe.)
Since then, euro-apparatchiks have been defensive and tetchy. Like their Comecon counterparts in the 1970s and 1980s, they have been more concerned with keeping their positions than with winning the argument, less interested in altering public opinion than in avoiding it. Before the “No” votes, they could convince themselves that euroscepticism was essentially a British phenomenon, with perhaps a tiny offshoot in Scandinavia. Now, they know that almost any electorate will reject the transfer of powers to Brussels.
In every EU state, there is a chasm between what the French call the pays légal (politicians, civil servants, big corporations, diplomats, NGOs) and the pays réel (everyone else). Whenever a new treaty is proposed, it gets the support of around 80 per cent of legislators. But, on the rare occasions that it is put to a referendum, it is thrown out.
The mismatch is perhaps most acute in Germany, whose postwar constitution was designed partly to shield politicians from “populism” (i.e. public opinion). The EU rests, to a far greater extent than anyone likes to admit, on the sufferance of German taxpayers. Indeed, for most of the past 40 years, there were only two net contributors to the budget: Germany in first place and Britain in second. The readiness of Germans to underwrite the whole construction depends, in turn, on an appeal to historical guilt. German opinion-formers and politicians call on this sense frequently, but always indirectly. They talk of “the demons of the past” or of “not returning to history”. The reason their appeals have to be phrased elliptically is that, if they were put into plain language — “we have to give more money to Greece or we might find ourselves at war with Poland” — their utter absurdity would be apparent.
I write in no carping spirit. The brand of euroscepticism I have always found most distasteful, as well as most wrong-headed, is the sort that sees the whole project as some kind of German plot. Konrad Adenauer embraced European integration from decent and high-minded motives. A.J.P. Taylor, in one of his essays, defined “the German problem” as one of numbers: because Germans were more populous than any of their neighbours, they would always dominate the Continent unless they were kept divided. Sure enough, between 1648 and 1990, the other European powers repeatedly sundered the German-speaking peoples. When, in 1990, Helmut Kohl announced that German unity and European unity were two sides of the same coin, he meant that the best way for a united Germany to be accepted by its former enemies would be for those former enemies to feel, in some sense, that Germany was their country too.
You can understand why that argument was persuasive to Germans of Kohl’s generation. They grew up in a country that was degraded and dishonoured, its infrastructure wrecked, its neighbours hostile. In an incredibly short time, they saw that country accepted into the comity of nations as a prosperous and powerful ally. Europe was the talisman that had somehow effected this transformation. It was, accordingly, beyond argument.
Such reasoning is not hypocritical, or self-serving or sordid; it’s simply out of date. To Germans of my generation (I am 40, roughly the median age there), the main geopolitical event of their lifetime was not the fall of Berlin, but the fall of the Berlin Wall. Patriotism was not a recruiting sergeant for fascism, but a liberating force which saw democracy restored to Central Europe. The shamanistic incantation, “we must do this for Europe”, has consequently lost its force over them. The spell has been broken. They can see what every other nation in Europe can see: that the EU has become a self-serving racket, a mechanism to redistribute wealth from taxpayers to those lucky enough to be in the system. When Germany declines to carry the burden, when Atlas shrugs, it’s over.
That’s not to say, of course, that those in power won’t defend their privileges frenziedly. There is, as I say, a deal of ruin in a union. But the EU has lost whatever legitimacy it once enjoyed. It may stagger on for another five years, or even another ten. But, if the happy events of 1989 teach us anything, it’s that the end, when it comes, is more sudden than anyone had dared to hope.