For Whom the Bell Tolls
It gives me absolutely no pleasure whatsoever to write this, but I believe we are approaching the time when we may have to begin to think about writing the epitaph for the EU. It’s been there pretty much all my life, and the UK has been a member all my adult years. I remember enthusiastically voting in favour of membership in Harold Wilson’s first referendum – it was one of the first times I voted in a national poll – completely convinced that the way forward lay in integration, common passports, common institutions across Europe. After all, my own family was a mixture, and John Lennon was telling us “Imagine there’s no countries, it isn’t hard to do”: I bought the album, like every other wannabe-hippy 1970s undergraduate.
And, indeed, the founding intentions of Jean Monnet and his colleagues were incontrovertibly reasonable. Reducing trade friction, through gradually eliminating tariffs within the Community – starting with the coal and steel industries – as a way of reducing other potential types of friction sounds good. One caveat on that is that I have never bought into the idea that the EEC/EU ‘maintained the peace in Europe’ – that was unquestionably NATO. But the economic arguments make perfect sense, to me, at any rate. After all, what does it matter whose flag is on the stern of the fishing boat if it can sell its catch universally and equally across the entire community? Surely that just means that the efficient fleet owners will survive, and the others won’t; actually, that’s something like what we call free market capitalism.
For a long time, all was well. At least, so it seemed to people like me, comfortable, affluent, middle-class, with business interests that were undoubtedly made easier by EU membership. Sure, there were always anomalies, prime amongst them of course the CAP, which was never more than a sop to the French agricultural industry. But we could all live with that, so we thought. Go back to that John Lennon lyric, though: we may have been able to imagine there were no countries, but the reality was somewhat different. All the while the supranational EU hierarchy was building, the other necessity – the decline in power of individual national governments – wasn’t happening at all. None of those European political leaders of the time were prepared to cede any serious authority over ‘their’ country to the higher(?) power. That’s not particularly intended as a criticism, by the way; just an observation.
If we look for a moment across the Atlantic at the United States of America, there is there perhaps a blueprint of how a federation of European states could look. But, importantly, there has been one extra stage. The ‘federation’ advanced from the east coast with the settlers and the wagon trains (incidentally, which we will come to in a moment, the dollar went with them – it wasn’t imposed later), but what it advanced across was already a fabric of states – ‘tribes’, they were called – and for the union to succeed, something had to be done about them. There is a very ugly word, beginning with ‘g’, which describes how that condition for the union was helped.
That solution is unthinkable for Europe, although it has been tried……. But in good times it didn’t really matter. When things were going well, nobody really noticed that what was actually happening was that the apparatus of a whole new political dimension was being built on top of what was already there, without really ever understanding – regardless of many, many thousands of positive words – that this should be a rebuilding, not an extension.
So the mistakes started creeping in. But still, while times were mostly good, they weren’t immediately perceived as mistakes. The most egregious – in my view, anyway – was the introduction of the Euro. This currency is a nakedly political act, which very little unbiased economic thought can reasonably accept. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here, but look back to what I said about the US Dollar. It advanced with the developing nation, which meant that wildly different states were able to adapt their requirements from the outset. In the EU, it was simply decided that the fiscal and financial policy of, say, Frankfurt, could easily and successfully be applied to, say, Puglia. When the first real crisis came, in 2008/9, what happened? Well, surprise, surprise, the weakest link became apparent. That was Greece – an independent nation state, remember, still with its own government and laws – which was simply thrown under the bus. A generation of Greek youth condemned to 40-odd% unemployment, savings trashed, pensions vanished and people starving (in twenty-first century Europe). But hey, Mario Draghi had done “whatever it took” to save the Euro, so that was all right. One-nil to the supranational entity…….but it was playing against its own members.
The next crisis to hit which exposed the idea of a unified entity was the sudden influx of refugees in 2015. This is a difficult issue, because the majority were fleeing from horrendous war zones, and we should all keep that in mind before we become too critical. Despite any problems, being born in western Europe is still akin to scoring a hat-trick in the Cup Final of life, and most of the world don’t have that benefit, so the mass movement is understandable. But what happened? The EU made some noises, but in the end any action came from national governments. Angela Merkel welcomed as many as wanted to come to Germany, Hungary put up razor wire, Austria closed borders, Ventimiglia stopped being a gentle drive-across from Italy to France, and so on. But the nation states had demonstrated their independence of thought. One-all, I guess, although this match is still being played.
And so we come to 2020 and the coronavirus. Now if ever there were a crisis where co-operation and working together were needed, this is it. Instead, what was the first reaction? Ditch the oh-so-much vaunted Schengen rules and close borders. Everybody do their own thing. Problems for Italy? Well, remember that bus we threw Greece under? Get it out again; ciao, Italia! That may be the own goal to make it two-one to the nation states.
So what I am saying is not that the concept per se is wrong – actually, I think I still agree with what Jean Monnet intended at the outset – but the execution has been fatally flawed by the failure to manage the decline in the nation states’ position to parallel the rise of the supranational institution. For a large swathe of the affluent, that hasn’t really been an issue, and they – we, if I’m honest – have overlooked it, because despite anything else, it has made our lives more comfortable. But issues like those I’ve highlighted here have been pushing an equally large – if not larger – section of the population more and more to the view that they depend upon their national governments, not the EU. That’s why those political parties sceptical of the EU have grown. La Liga in Italy, Vox in Spain (which is currently not far off being a basket case, and Catalan nationalism is not going away; and, incidentally, although my French friends assure me this is not so, that will probably spread to France as well: after all, when for example I see Perpignan playing rugby, the flags in the stadium are all Catalan, not the Tricolore), Belgium is in many ways two countries, Hungary already looks as if it is only the money that keeps them…….and the extreme case of brexit . Uniting them all is a great idea, but it hasn’t been well done (still, better than the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so I suppose we are making progress…). Personnel probably come into it as well – can you blame those who would rather not have to rely on the hapless Jean-Claude Juncker?
I suppose that (as a citizen of the UK) since the 2016 referendum result I should be looking at this purely as a neutral observer. It doesn’t feel like that, though; after all, as I said above, I’ve been part of it all my adult life, so it’s difficult to let go. Is my opening statement over-pessimistic? Mmm, well, it doesn’t have to be, but for it not to be there needs to be a far greater recognition than I can see amongst current politicians that the relationship between nation states and the Union is currently unbalanced. But people are strange; I’m sure I understand the economic benefits shouldn’t be bent to suit politics – others clearly have a different view. Is the real problem part of the universal one that the wrong people become politicians – those with an over-weening ego and a need for power?
My title, as well as being borrowed by Hemingway, actually originally comes from a prose meditation by the 16th/17th century English metaphysical poet John Donne. It’s worth quoting it in full here:
“ No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”