Arriving at Brussels airport from Birmingham, as I regularly do, I frequently find that although we disembark from the aircraft on an air jetty, we are then shepherded downstairs (frequently in the rain) to a waiting bus, and are then bussed to the other side of the airport. When I grumbled about this, my former West Midlands colleague Philip Bushell-Matthews used to adopt a supercilious tone, and point out that if only the UK had had the wisdom to join the Schengen area that allows border-free travel between most EU states, we should not have suffered the inconvenience of a bus-ride to another terminal.
I have heard similar comments about the convenience of joining the euro. Just think, if we had only joined the single currency, we could travel throughout the EU with the same notes and coins all the way! Think how much hassle we’d save!
Benjamin Franklin is credited with the famous line that those who are prepared to sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither liberty nor security. This is clearly true. And it is even more clearly true in the case of those who are prepared to sacrifice liberty and independence for mere convenience. These decisions come back to bite us.
I remember in the mid-noughties being teased by europhiles about the euro. We sceptics had predicted problems, perhaps disasters, asymmetric shocks, all kinds of difficulties. Yet the euro was well accepted, stable, strong, and well on the way to becoming the world’s second reserve currency. Where was the predicted catastrophe? Today, of course, we see the catastrophe all too clearly. The strains are self-evident, the PIGS are in crisis, the EU struggles to create palliatives and bail-out mechanisms, but they are too little, too late. And despite the UK’s wisdom in staying out of the toils of the euro, we find that willy-nilly we are sucked into these rescue mechanisms.
Yet as Dan Hannan wrote in the Telegraph yesterday, “Greece, Ireland and Portugal have not been rescued: they have been sacrificed to save the euro”. And it is not clear that the austerity medicine prescribed by Brussels is deliverable in a free and democratic society. Indeed, most market commentators now seem to believe that Greece has no alternative but to default (sorry — restructure!), and I think they are right.
Schadenfreude is an ugly thing, but I can’t resist saying (at least for Bill Newton Dunn’s benefit) “We told you so”. Folly can prosper for a while, but eventually it delivers its inevitable consequences.
But now we are seeing parallel problems with Schengen, which I must admit I had not anticipated, or at least not on the scale we see today (though I was always and instinctively opposed to giving up control of our national frontiers). The principle of free movement is being challenged by an external shock, and arguably an asymmetric shock.
The Schengen agreement is named for the small town of Schengen in Luxembourg where in 1985, five of the then ten members of the European Economic Community reached an accord on free movement between them. This accord was absorbed into EU law in the Amsterdam Treaty of 1999, and now includes 25 of the 27 EU member states, plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, and the micro-states of Monaco, San Merino and the Vatican City. Fortunately, the UK and Ireland (not coincidentally, both island nations with some hope of controlling their borders) remained outside Schengen.
The firestorm currently surging across North Africa and the Arab states of the Middle East is unprecedented, unpredictable and has a long way to run yet. No one can foresee the outcome. But already we see one consequence — a huge wave of emigration, with the emigrants heading north to Europe. Significantly, the greatest numbers right now are from a state which appears to have come through its revolution — Tunisia. Yet there are no jobs and no prospects in that country for thousands of young men, who have made their way towards Italy, many initially to the island of Lampedusa.
These pose a massive problem for Italy. Yet many of them are French-speaking. They have relatives in France, and want to go there. So we see a game of pass-the-parcel developing. Italy already faces huge concerns about immigration, and is demanding EU help. But in the meantime, the Italians are doing all they can to facilitate the onward journeys of these refugees, giving them six-month Schengen visas and even train tickets north.
Meanwhile France also has immigrant problems. Marine Le Pen, daughter of former National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, is looking like an increasingly credible challenger for the French Presidency, so Sarkozy has to burnish his credentials on immigration. The French are holding trains at the Italian border, in defiance of Schengen, and calling for the Schengen accord to be suspended until the North African problem is solved.
We have a reprise of earlier problems with attempts at immigration into the UK. The Daily Mail reports that a thousand Tunisian refugees have set up make-shift camps around the Gare du Nord in Paris, hoping to catch the train to Saint Pancras, and I am not sure that we can trust the French to stop them.
There are two key points here. First, two flagship policies of the EU are in disarray: the euro and the principle of free movement. It is not at all clear that they can be maintained in their present form. I expect the euro to exist in ten years’ time, but it will probably look very different, and have fewer members. And I doubt whether the principle of free movement will ever recover its first fine careless rapture. As Browning put it, “Never glad confident morning again”. The credibility of the European project looks increasingly threadbare.
Secondly, we in Britain — and especially the Coalition government — face a challenge. We’re out of the euro — but we’re being tapped for money to support the failing euro project. We’re out of Schengen — but we have yet to show the vigour and determination we’ll need to secure our borders. These are critical areas on which the credibility of the government will stand or fall.