Some time ago, I published a bumper-sticker reading “Love Europe — Hate the EU!”. (I still have some available if you’d like one). A number of people asked how this was possible — surely today, the EU and Europe are virtually synonymous? But of course they’re not. Europe is a place, comprising a number of ancient and proud nations with strong national, cultural and linguistic identities; whereas the EU is a political system. So indeed I love Europe — the culture, the cooking, the countryside, and even (occasionally) the people. But I hate the EU with a passion, because as my colleague Dan Hannan says, it is making us poorer, and less democratic, and less free. As an illustration of how it may be possible to love Europe and hate the EU, try some parallels. Love China, hate the Communist Party. Love Cambodia, hate Pol Pot. Even (dare I say it?) Love Germany, hate the Nazis.
So it was that I had few qualms about accepting an invitation from The Friends of Europe to attend their President’s Dinner last Thursday evening, Oct 9th, to engage in two mini-debates. The first, after the starter, was a topical debate on the financial crisis, while the second, after the main course, was on the proposal that “We should scrap the Lisbon Treaty”. This all took place in an utterly splendid gallery, all carved marble and gilding, in the Palais d’Egmont in Brussels.
But the structure of debate was unusual (and rather effective). There was a podium on which the main debate took place. We had David Rennie of The Economist, and Shireen Wheeler, the BBC’s head honcho in Brussels, putting questions to three pro-EU spokespeople — Gary Titley MEP, leader of the (sadly depleted) Labour group in the parliament (his gem of the evening was to observe that he was “proud that a Labour government had nationalised the banks”); Pat Cox, the Irish former President of the Parliament; and another whose name escapes me. But on a separate and higher (much higher) podium, swathed in red velvet drapes, were three sceptics. Myself, former Irish Green MEP Patricia Mckenna, and Jens-Peter Bonde of the European Democrats.
We sceptics had an electric bull-horn, and the deal was that each of us could intervene once in each debate — when we could no longer stand the federalist clap-trap from below. We felt as if we were in dock in a court-room, or at the front of an open-top bus, or indeed that we were the grumpy old guys leaning over the balcony in The Muppets. Our task was to pop up every so often like Old Nick in a Punch and Judy show, and make mayhem. I flatter myself that we did that rather well.
In the first debate, the view from the main panel was that the crisis had proved the need for “more Europe”, and indeed for the Lisbon Treaty. I used my intervention to remind the audience of the previous Saturday, when Angela Merkel, Gordon Brown, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy had met in Brussels, along with the Presidents of the European Commission and the ECB, and called for more European coordination, and had roundly criticised Ireland for “going it alone” and giving a general but unilateral bank deposit guarantee. Then twenty-four hours later, Angela Merkel went and did exactly the same — a unilateral German guarantee. Perfect proof that the EU institutions simply cannot reach consensus fast enough to respond to this type of crisis. For me, that marked the death of European solidarity. I contrasted this with the coordinated move later in the week by banks across the world, including the US, European countries and China, to cut interest rates. I argued that a global crisis required global coordination, and I failed to see the benefits of local/regional coordination in Europe — especially when it seemed so difficult to achieve.
I also pointed out that the euro is the only currency in the world that is not backed by a national government and a national exchequer. It was already clear from Germany’s response that Germany would not bail out the whole euro-zone in a crisis, and I suggested that this represented an existential threat to the euro currency which it might well not survive. This observation was greeted first with shock, then anger. Clearly the idea had not crossed their minds, insulated as they are in the Brussels bubble.
The second debate, on the Lisbon Treaty, was profoundly depressing. The protagonists insisted that the EU was a Union of Values built on Democracy and the Rule of Law. Then they discussed how they would yet drive through the Lisbon Treaty in the face of popular resistance, and in defiance of public opinion. Titley said that “He hoped it could be done by unanimity, but perhaps other means would have to be found”. I said exactly what readers of this blog would expect me to say, and was duly barracked for my pains. One member of the audience — on the table where I had been dining — cried out in horror “You’re nothing but a populist!”. “Yes”, I replied. “I listen to the people and take account of their views. Call it populism if you want, but I call it democracy!”.
The euro-luvvies will not be constrained by logic, or public opinion, or decency, or accountability, or legitimacy. They have a vision, and they will press ahead regardless. It will take something dramatic to force a re-think. Perhaps the financial crisis will do the job. A euro break-up — now a real possibility — would knock the stuffing out of their project.
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