Saturday, June 04, 2005

Being Europe: Part 2, After the Fall

Well, the referendum week is past and the people have spoken. As usual with referendums , though, deciding what they said is already proving to be tough. No is clear enough, but it is increasingly obvious that there were as many noes as there were voters. That's democracy for you. It's also one of the reasons I don't like referendums on principle, as they simply don't provide for the expression of views in any detail. And understanding the diversity of no is vital, because exactly what they said no to will define what Europe needs to do next. British Eurosceptics, of course, have been hopping up and down with glee, convincing themselves at least that the Hour of EFTA is at hand. The institutions will go! Minimal free trade area! Yay! But this is chucklehead stuff.

Very simply, try telling the French "no" who said that they voted against the constitution because they "didn't believe European workers should compete with each other" that they voted for Tim Worstall's utopia. (Imagine trying to get the Treaty Dis-establishing a Constitution for the European Union through a referendum in France.) Or alternatively, try telling the Dutch that what we need is a wider, looser Europe including Turkey and the Ukraine. One thing nobody in the UK has picked up on is the strange revival of the French Communist Party; the French no-vote splits broadly into the angry left and the angry right. And neither of those groups shares anything much with the Brits - the angry left wants proletarian internationalism in a "social Europe" (but no international proletarians here, thank you very much), and the angry right wants French nationalism in one country, complete with tariff barriers, border controls and certainly no British competitors.

The only French noes who agree with British eurosceptic discourse are the vanishingly tiny group around what's left of Alain Madelin's following. And, frankly, nobody cares about them. The most economically Anglophone of serious French politicians is Nicolas Sarkozy, and he was stumping the country for a yes vote. UKIP ally Philippe de Villiers, meanwhile, achieved more profile than he ever had before but couldn't deliver a no in his home powerbase in the Vendee (which went marginally yes). The guy my partner calls Le Fou du Bocage (roughly, the madman in the woods) was rejected by his fellow outback weirdsters.

Bizarrely, though, the discourse of the lefty noes has sometimes been eerily similar to the far right. They are at pains to deny it (some of them turned up in the Guardian complaining that the British no campaign was outrageously flirting with the right, a remarkably hypocritical statement), but this is absurd. There was the chap who said he wasn't against the Polish plumber, but the underpaid and exploited Polish plumber...well. It's clearly OK for the hypothetical plumber to stay underpaid and exploited so long as he does it in Poland, where he isn't on the Frenchman's conscienceh. The chair of Attac France lowered himself to alleging in Le Monde that Spain had only ratified because they were recipients of EU funds (missing out that the structural fund, which redistributes money to infrastructure projects in poor parts of the Union, is about to stop funding the western members almost completely as it reorientates to the new joiners, who need the cash more), a charge that could have been copied from the BNP's manifesto and is anyway a fine example of the art of chutzpah given the amounts of agricultural subsidy that flow to France every year. All that now separates José Bové from Jean-Marie Le Pen are their views on the future Europe: their critique and their campaigning have converged.

That brings us to Lenin time. What's To Be Done? Well, the first thing is to accept that the treaty is dead as a dead thing. Yes, there are arguments for pressing on, but they aren't very good arguments. It's true that the ratifier countries have a right to make their voice heard. But in any vote there are people who find themselves on the losing side. It's true that it was in the plan. Well, no plan long survives contact with the enemy, and neither do plans often survive contact with the voters. Clearly it wasn't a very good plan, anyway. The argument against pressing on is far stronger.

First, the people who rejected the treaty deserve to have their views respected. Second, if we agree there is a democratic deficit in Europe, let us do some democracy and respond quickly to popular criticism. Thirdly, the treaty cannot realistically come into force, so the whole affair is a waste of time and money. A national referendum in a country of 60 million is not cost-free. And most importantly, letting the treaty stagger on along a Via Dolorosa of months of rejection is dangerous. As long as it is mathematically, theoretically possible to try to salvage it, some people will refuse to believe it needs dramatic change. People like the tired old mediocrity Jean-Claude Juncker, for example. But throughout this period, the EU is going to be unstable and fractious. Serious business will be on hold, political time and capital tied up, and the ground rules uncertain.

As voting no, or yes for that matter, will be without cost, you can expect a outpouring of demagogy and nonsense. But this will have real effects. We've seen the Euro have a wobbly Wednesday crisis this week brought on by a cocktail of post-referendum tension and loose talk. A year of this will do the economy a power of no good. It's time to spike the treaty. The institutional paralysis feared by so many has not yet happened under the current Nice Treaty arrangements. There's no reason to fiddle with them unnecessarily. Whilst everyone was agonising over the fate of political Europe and the Euro, under the ice the Handelsblatt was reporting a rush by German entrepreneurs to incorporate companies in London - not to set up there, but simply to use British company law to create firms cheaply and speedily. This is one of the things that will do Germany a lot of good (can you spell "Mittelstand"?), and it's all down to the EU. It was reported in the International Herald Tribune that the US was considering turning to the EU as an honest broker in the North Korean nuclear dispute. And Switzerland is having a referendum on joining the Schengen area, without joining the EU of course.

Right. That's step one. What next? First of all, we need consensus on aims. And this demands self-consistency. You can't argue for keeping the Polish plumbers in Poland and simultaneously enjoy the freedom of movement around Schengenland. I doubt, at bottom, that a majority of Frenchmen would not agree with the aims of free movement of persons, capital, goods, ideas and organisations around Europe. I also doubt that a majority of Dutchmen would disagree with Europe being a zone of peace and democracy. A lot of people have moaned about the constitution being too long, the reductio ad absurdum on this being a commenter at Wallstrom's who thought it should be limited to two pages of A4. Well, my student union's constitution took up twenty or so pages, plus about the same length of caveats, amendments and such. What is needed to start with, though, is a short paper on aims and principles.

This could be tossed to the European Parliament, sitting, say, as a committee called to review the constitutional treaty (thus sparing its drafters' blushes). Let us have proposals to it from the national parliaments. Then let us have an act of democracy to approve it. In six months' time (at the finish of the UK presidency), we could have a working set of principles sitting on top of the treaties. Then we can decide whether we need to go for a single document rewrite of those, or whether we can amend them as necessary to implement the principles.

In the meantime, let's concentrate on managing the business of Europe, dealing with concrete issues and sane solutions. And - can we perhaps get some new national politicians? One of the problems, perhaps the biggest, is that the key national leaders are a depressing bunch. In France we have the unprincipled old crook Jacques Chirac, currently in the process of trying to stage a death-battle between the never-elected Dominique de Villepin and the loathed Nicolas Sarkozy. In Germany we have another slimy operator, Gerhard Schröder, on his fourth wife and his last chance. In Italy, the execrable Berlusconi. In Austria, the ridiculous Wolfgang Schlüssel and his increasingly weird extreme-right coalition partners. In Britain, the hopelessly discredited Blair. In Brussels, the Luxembourgers are in the chair, with Juncker, a decent mayor in a bad year who seems to have been permanently in Brussels for as long as I can remember. The politics of the Czech Republic seem permanently mired in scandal. What a bunch!

You have to go to Spain, Sweden or Poland before you find anyone who doesn't stink of death or money. As so often, a better Europe will have to start with better national politics.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It occurs to me that there are as many reasons for yes votes as for no votes. Even those voting 'pro-Europe' seem to differ on exactly what Europe actually means.

I doubt, at bottom, that a majority of Frenchmen would not agree with the aims of free movement of persons, capital, goods, ideas and organisations around Europe.

Which is - I think - slightly meaningless, and is largely dependent on the context of the question [think Yes Minister]. Yes perhaps, on their terms - whilst again their terms vary widely.

It's all very good calling for freedom of movement, but what we have are 25 national economies where some skills are much more free to move than others. There's a comparison with Canada here - the language divide has tended to keep Quebec generally poor - whilst Montreal itself is full of professionals working for international companies which do their main business in English.

regards, chris

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