Coffee House

Does anybody still believe that the EU is a benign institution?

6 July 2015

2:59 PM

6 July 2015

2:59 PM

Ever since Margaret Thatcher U-turned in the dying days of her premiership, there has been a kind of agreement between Left and Right on what the European Union is. Most Conservatives followed the late-vintage Thatcher. They stopped regarding the EU as a free market that British business must be a part of, and started to see it as an unaccountable socialist menace that could impose left-wing labour and environmental policies on a right-wing government.

As many critics have said, the Tory version of British nationalism that followed had many hypocrisies. It did not want foreigners infringing national sovereignty when they were bureaucrats in Brussels but did not seem to mind them when they were generals at Nato or economists at the WTO.

Tory nationalism, however, did succeed in provoking a reaction. Leftists decided to approve of the EU for the same reasons conservatives denounced it. Generally, we are against nationalism, because it incites groundless prejudice. We are in favour of minimum protections for workers and trying to limit global warming. If our government does not enforce them, we do not care overmuch if a super-national institution takes on the job. Better a solution of dubious democratic legitimacy than no solution at all.

Overwhelmingly you found people who understood the idealism that drove the European Union on the British centre-left. Most people in Britain do not because Hitler and Stalin did not occupy Britain. We never experienced communism or fascism as every country in Europe did with the exception of Switzerland and Sweden. British nationalism feels more plausible than its continental counterparts do because our state never collapsed before an invading army. Nor are we trying to escape a discredited past as the Greeks are trying to escape the memory of the Colonels, or Spain is trying to escape the memory of Franco, or Ireland is trying to escape the memory of British colonialism or Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe the memory of Soviet imperialism.

There’s a second reason for British exceptionalism that hardly anyone points out. Not because of a special virtue in the British, but because we have an independent civil service, corruption is rare here. In Spain, Italy, Portugal, France and Greece, the spoils system guarantees bad government. As the Spanish political scientist Víctor Lapuente Giné argued, in a mid-sized Spanish city, the party that wins local elections can give senior posts to hundreds of people. Their clients need to get rich quick, in case they lose their jobs at the next election, and a new set of thieves from a rival party move in. In these circumstances, government from distant Brussels can appear more honest than government by the crooks down the road .

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Europe brings peace, then. Europe brings a break from a totalitarian past. Europe brings compassionate environmental and labour policies. Europe brings relatively uncorrupted government. No wonder the centre-left admires it.

The Euro crisis is breaking down old certainties. Looked at from an economic perspective, the Euro is such an insanely right-wing project it is a wonder British Tories aren’t endorsing it. It locks incompatible countries into the single currency. They cannot devalue to give their industries a chance of competing against Germany and the rest of northern Europe. Indeed their membership of the Euro drags down the export costs of their northern European competitors. In addition, their central banks cannot deal with unsustainable debts by inflating them away. All they can do is go along with EU demands for austerity and more austerity and see the welfare states and labour protections the Left has struggled for a century to build destroyed in the process.

If Greece were still an independent country, the International Monetary Fund would never have allowed it to fall into its great depression. It would have told it to renounce most of its debts, devalue the drachma and then impose austerity so it did not fritter away the benefits of its newly competitive position. Instead, Greece and the rest of southern Europe has had austerity and only austerity without purpose, without end, without hope.

As the cruelty of a 25 per cent cut in GDP and a 50 per cent youth unemployment rate drags on, as the absurdity of expecting a country to repay debts that no country could repay continues, the old, vague leftish assumption that the EU is a benign institution is dying.

Europe brings peace. Is that so? It is becoming obvious that you cannot have the economics of the Great Depression without having the politics of the Great Depression. Tsipras’s Greek Marxists and Marine le Pen’s French ‘post-fascists’ may seem moderate when set against the men and women who will come after them if this crisis does not end. Far from quelling nationalism, meanwhile, the Euro has incited it. People who were rubbing along perfectly well in the early 1990s, now look on each other with an emotion close to hatred. Greeks, Italians and Spaniards wonder why Germans, Finns and the Dutch insist that they must suffer. The Germans, Finns and Dutch wonder why southern Europeans expect to live off their taxes.

Europe brings a break from a totalitarian past. Really? It has created a currency system, which offers no democratic means of escape. Europe brings compassionate and sensible politics. Spare me, please. Nothing I believe has been more shocking to left-wing opinion that the failure of the EU’s leaders to stop and say: ‘We are good Europeans who believe in solidarity and common decency. The levels of misery our policies are inflicting on southern Europe are intolerable. We cannot carry on like this.’

I suppose the best you can say is that Draghi’s European Central Bank and Merkel’s Christian Democrats are not noticeably corrupt. But I would rather have a corpulent Catholic mayor, his pockets stuffed with petty bribes for services rendered, than an unbending Calvinist prig, who would drive millions to ruin to placate his merciless god. And I suspect many others would too.

The growing awareness on the Left that the EU is turning everything we thought was true about it on its head will have political consequences. In Britain’s case, the change in perspective will make it is more than likely that there will be significant left-wing support for a ‘No’ vote in the European referendum.

Meanwhile here and everywhere else in Europe the moral superiority, which accompanied the European project, will be attacked from the left as well as the right. The EU, which was once seen as an institution which pointed a way to a better future, will be denounced with the same venom as the United States was denounced under the Bush presidency.

As Europeans’ hopes of escape from a terrible past are replaced by fears of an unconscionable present, the EU will be portrayed, with some truth, as a cruel, fanatical and stupid institution. Unless, that is, it changes and changes fast.

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Show comments
  • Conway

    … the EU will be portrayed, with some truth, as a cruel, fanatical and stupid institution. Unless, that is, it changes and changes fast.” You mean, totally truthfully! The EU is anti-democratic, takes no account of reality, cares nothing for the peoples of Europe and is dead set on completing the project. It is totally incapable of change. It needs to be destroyed.

  • Conway

    Far from quelling nationalism, meanwhile, the Euro has incited it.” It isn’t just the euro; it’s the whole concept that nation states must be destroyed (driven by the desire to create a single European state). It goes against human nature.

  • Conway

    We [the left] are in favour of … trying to limit global warming.” That’s the equivalent of trying to knit clouds. You’d be far better off trying to limit populations and make arrangements to deal with any consequences of “global warming”.

  • Mark Rich

    Please don’t blame the brutal priggishness of Merkel and the EU on God. Jesus demanded the release of debts and debtors, and sharing of possessions. God has mercy on the poor, unlike the EU.

  • pwok1977

    I’ll be voting to leave the EU when the time comes.

    The EU is anti democratic over priced and unneeded.
    Tariff free deals as an independent country are the way forwards.

  • Dysgrontled

    The obligatory Tory-bashing sits a bit oddly with the fact that Cohen has essentially plagiarised this article from David Cameron. They’re both right, of course.

  • rapscallion

    ” It did not want foreigners infringing national sovereignty when they were bureaucrats in Brussels but did not seem to mind them when they were generals at Nato or economists at the WTO.”

    This comment perfectly sums up your inability to understand the difference between the EU and NATO.

    The EU makes laws that we must obey, it tramples all over what little sovereignty we have left. NATO is purely a military organisation created specifically to prevent any Warsaw Pact aggression. NATO does not create laws that we must obey.

    You got the last paragraph right, except that it won’t change. It can’t. Eventually it will perish.

  • Frank

    Nick, to answer your question: sadly the leaders of both main parties appear to still think that the EU is a benign institution. We all know that Labour currently doesn’t know which way is north, but as for the Prime Minister, it is yet further evidence of how little attention he pays to anything.

    • Chamber Pot

      Frank,

      I hate to tell you this but they don’t and they are all the more wicked for it.

      They know perfectly well that the EU is institutionally corrupt and malign but since they are all receiving significant benefits in cash or kind from that bottomless pit of unaudited money that is the EU slush fund account they will stick with it to the bitter end like an addict to his fix.

      Our political class in the great majority are EU place men all bought and paid for which is why they increasingly appear robotic, clueless, and detached.

  • http://ostrovletania.blogspot.com/ Andrea Ostrov Letania

    “Tsipras’s Greek Marxists and Marine le Pen’s French ‘post-fascists’ may seem moderate when set against the men and women who will come after them if this crisis does not end. Far from quelling nationalism, meanwhile, the Euro has incited it. People who were rubbing along perfectly well in the early 1990s, now look on each other with an emotion close to hatred.”

    Bollocks.

    The main reason for the rise of nationalist parties is the desire for national/cultural survival against the tide of massive invasion from the Third World.

    The new nationalism isn’t about aggression and chauvinism. It is about defense and preservation.

    It is against both globo-capitalists and globo-socialists.

    • Chamber Pot

      Precisely, and the multinational Euro is part and parcel of this ‘ globaloney ‘ in case you hadn’t noticed it ?

    • Sten vs Bren

      “The new nationalism isn’t about aggression and chauvinism”

      Good. That should make you easier to ignore. Nationalism is so bloody noisy. Hark at those Jocks.

      “national/cultural survival against the tide of massive invasion from the Third World”

      What do you know of cuture? Coronation Street?

      • http://ostrovletania.blogspot.com/ Andrea Ostrov Letania

        Well, for one thing, I know culture is spelled ‘culture’, not ‘cuture’.

        • Sten vs Bren

          Bloody ‘L’.

  • http://ostrovletania.blogspot.com/ Andrea Ostrov Letania

    “But I would rather have a corpulent Catholic mayor, his pockets stuffed with petty bribes for services rendered, than an unbending Calvinist prig, who would drive millions to ruin to placate his merciless god. And I suspect many others would too.”

    But the Calvinist prig nations have been pouring gazillions into southern Europe only to see the natives grow more corrupt, dependent, and demanding.

    At some point, you gotta say STOP.

  • http://free-english-people.blogspot.com/ Paul Perrin

    Thats funny – the left are going off their communist run EU, so now call it right wing.

    How long till we hear ‘socialism works, its just noone had really tried it’.

    The article is typical 6th form common room juvenile scribblings.

  • Kevin T

    Tories don’t endorse the Euro out of bitter experience with the ERM. Sadly many on the right like the idea of being part of a superstate competing with China and America and they fool themselves into thinking we are a much more important part of it than we are.

    This I find disturbing from your (correct) analysis of why the left supports the EU – “Better a solution of dubious democratic legitimacy than no solution at all”. You’re describing 2 hideous mistakes in one sentence. Firstly the idea that your policies are more important than the democratic process – something Tony Benn argued eloquently against – and secondly that you’ve been bought off. Now the same undemocratic institution that gave you the social chapter will give you TTIP.

  • pjl1968

    Many on the British left are as ashamed of our colonial past as continentals are ashamed of their fascist past.

    • Sten vs Bren

      I agree. I suppose the fascists have more cause for guilt than the Imperialists but it’s a bit wrong headed.

    • Chamber Pot

      I am not at all ashamed.

      My ancestors stopped suttee, thuggee, and the karma sutra, and filled in the Black Hole of Calcutta in India and brought the benefit of British civilisation to millions many of whom are royally upset to have had that taken away from them in 1947 and have moved to East Ham in their thousands.

  • dickhut

    The Euro -an insanely right wing project”.
    Which planet are you on?

  • WTF

    The EU long ago showed its true colors that its not a benign organization that was designed to prevent conflict in Europe. Its like any tumor, it might seem benign at first but as it grows in size it becomes cancerous and malignant as it eats away at the host that supports it. Its beyond that stage in the EU where a benign tumor can be removed and the success rate for the patient is100% as its now malignant and even if we can cut the cancerous parts out, the prognosis is not promising !

  • Eyesee

    Not sure how you can claim that the euro should appeal to the Right. A currency that is dictated regardless, from the centre is pure Marxist policy, straightforward Soviet Union of Europe. Every aspect of the EU is to bring about a totalitarian government with no hint of democracy. I think the outrage in Brussels every time the electorate get to vote on something connected with the EU, is proof positive of how the institution abhors the choice of the people. Strangely, every time they are asked, they vote against the wishes of the colleagues, so the question is, who or what is the EU for?

  • Castro Spendlove

    Better late than never Nick.

  • Gregory Mason

    ‘Looked at from an economic perspective, the Euro is such an insanely
    right-wing project it is a wonder British Tories aren’t endorsing it.’

    This sentence just highlights that you lack the knowledge of what drives Right wing people ((or you do not know what makes something Left or Right wing) or come to think of it anything about economics which is highly probable given that you’re Left wing.) It is not Right wing in the bleedin’ slightest.

  • EdgarJCassady

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  • Robin Whitlock

    The way forward is to reform the EU not collapse it…

    • WTF

      Most people would rather fix a house that’s broken rather than tear it down but sometimes that’s not an economic or workable proposition. The EU is at that point where its a close call whether to spend even more money on it in the vain hope you can fix it, or tear it up and start with a clean sheet.

      The EU isn’t some dilapidated veteran car where for nostalgic reasons its worth pouring money into the project even though its almost certain you’ll never recover your costs. At least with vintage stuff, at some time in the distant future its likely to recover the costs whilst the EU project will never do that.

  • Ed_Burroughs

    “Better a solution of dubious democratic legitimacy than no solution at all.”

    “Better a ‘solution’ of dubious democratic legitimacy than no solution at all.”

    There ya go Nick, I fixed it for ya; see the difference?

  • Steven Dutch

    The EU is about open borders and peace in Europe. Hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner and focus on the core mission.

  • Benjamin O’Donnell

    This otherwise excellent article *really* needs proofreading. Doesn’t the Spectator have editors?

  • SeanLM

    Italy and Portugal– you’re next.

  • justejudexultionis

    Does anybody still believe that the UK is a benign institution? Given this country’s historical annexation of a third of the globe through military force and diplomatic manipulation, its ongoing support for murderous dictatorships such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar and its preference for monarchy over constitutional transparency and liberty, its deliberate importation of hundreds of thousands of bigoted Islamic proto-terrorists you would have to be pretty insane to think it was…

    • Sten vs Bren

      Well push off, then.

      • Game Bird

        That’s posters vile. His raison d’être is making nasty comments about British people and women, both of which he clearly loathes.

        • Clive

          I like women

        • Damaris Tighe

          ‘Vile’: can’t you think of a new virtue signaller to chastise people with? Hint, ‘bigot’ & ‘racist’ have become obsolete due to mindless kneejerk overuse.

          • Jeffrey Vernon

            Apologist, antisemite and SJW must have run their course as well by now. All sides enjoy their spasms of indignation.

    • Clive

      So the UK did not have a trading empire to which the vast majority of its inhabitants consented ? We used military force on about a third of the world ? Tricky, the numbers do not really add up, do they ?

      And ‘diplomatic manipulation’ – which government does not use diplomacy for its own ends ? That is the purpose of it.

      The alternative – the EU – is led by the Franco-German axis and neither of those countries has any history of colonialism or murderous attacks on other countries, er, does it ?

      Have you heard of the Herero and Namaqua ? Not many people have. Tens of thousands of them were deliberately wiped out. It involved concentration camps and forced labour.

      Guess which country did it. I’ll give you a clue – one of the early governors of this colony was Herman Göring’s uncle. It was the first genocide of the 20th century https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herero_and_Namaqua_Genocide

      Constitutional monarchy is the best form of government. It avoids the American predilection for electing a Congress and President from different parties which is the equivalent of French ‘Cohabitation’ – a recipe for governmental stalemate.

      Having a written constitution has given America the Right to Keep and Bear Arms – the 2nd Amendment which is actually descended from the English Bill of Rights of 1689. We moved on, they didn’t.

      We can always move on. The Germans can’t either. The German constitutional court in Karlsruhe wrestles regularly with the conflict between the German consitution – The Basic Law – and the EU. It’s a monumental waste of time but it has to happen.

      I agree with you about Saudi Arabia (excepting Prince Alwaleed who seems to have turned out to be a nice man). They are the elephant in the international room. ‘Somebody better investigate soon’ to quote Bob Dylan. Not sure about Qatar. Could go either way.

      As for muslims in general, personally, I think they are people like me but if you’re worried about them… France has a far higher muslim population than the UK and they are mainly North African, I believe. Germany also has a huge muslim population, mostly Turkish in origin.

      So go and live in mainland EU if you want to. Good luck with it.

  • http://i-squared.blogspot.co.uk/ Katabasis

    Never thought I’d say this of you Nick, but this is not only a lightweight piece, it is also deeply dishonest given what you were writing only a few months ago:

    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/apr/04/david-cameron-tories-europe-eu-referendum-disaster-for-uk

    I’m disappointed in you to say the least.

    For most issues you usually do your homework but on this issue I’d be better informed by reading the Yellow Pages than your pieces.

    As TheBoilingFrog says in another comment on this piece, you really should read the comments more often. Many of us in the Eurosceptic camp(s) have put long hours in working through the treaties and numerous byzantine EU websites, position statements, policies and so on. It’s abundantly clear that you on the other hand have done nothing of the sort.

  • Pagie

    BREXIT before we all go down….if not economically by imported terrorists as a consequence of the EU Migration Policy

  • http://i-squared.blogspot.co.uk/ Katabasis

    If the left hadn’t spent the last two decades being more concerned about controlling people’s speech and vigorously virtue signaling to one another they might have noticed what people like Tony Benn had to say on the EU and that there is a gob smackingly obvious case for a left wing flavour of Euroscepticism.

  • justsomeone

    How many people in Europe actually want a “United States of Europe”, regardless of whether at any particular point in time it’s right or left wing?
    I really hope Greece leaves the Euro and somehow manages to cope.
    Thank God we have our own currency.
    The European Union should only be about free trade and free movement, and that has to be limited to functioning economies, to countries that have advanced, functioning economies. Divided we stand!

    • SeanLM

      If the UK stays in the EU, they will eventually force the UK onto the Euro. The “keep the pound” contingent has to win 100% of the time whereas the “yes Euro” contingent only has to win once. They will take advantage of any crisis or downturn. They will tell any lie necessary since they see it as “for our own good.” They have limitless resources as seen by Ireland’s 2nd referendum where they outspent the Nos by more than 10:1. Britain doesn’t have a written constitution to fortify any of its national interests, so they’re all on the table. When they’re all on the table, they’re all under threat. Cameron’s “renegotiation” is going to be an absolutely embarrassing exercise in kabuki and everyone knows it.

      • Clive

        All true except that a written constitution would not protect us and I don’t want one anyway.

        The Germans have a written constitution which is regularly broken by EU law. It makes little difference. Here is a piece from the very pro-EU Der Spiegel http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/the-eu-critical-course-of-the-german-high-court-a-958018.html

        The president of Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court — the country’s top court — wanted to elucidate his idea of a “Europe of tomorrow” to some 30 members of the European Parliament at Maison Kammerzell, a historical restaurant in the French city.

        It wasn’t a pleasant evening for Vosskuhle. It almost seemed as though the members of parliament were turning the tables and placing the chief justice of Germany’s highest court in the dock. “Vosskuhle was raked over the coals,” says one participant, adding that there were no party lines when it came to the criticism. One member even complained that the court is seeking to harm the European Parliament with its decisions. Another argued that the Karlsruhe-based court simply doesn’t comprehend Europe’s idea of democracy.

        After a barrage of questioning that lasted two hours, Vosskuhle finally lost his patience. “Not a single person here has mentioned the words ‘citizens’ or ‘voters,'” he said, seeking to rebuke the politicians. “Is your own power the only thing you care about?”

  • MrJones

    The EU is a political construct with an internal economic flaw. It can only hold together by becoming increasingly authoritarian.

    The EU’s gravy train means they will try.

  • Alex

    More to the point, who still believes the EU is socialist?

    • Sten vs Bren

      Many Spectator readers.

      • Game Bird

        Now Greece has voted no to the austerity measures what options do you think they have?

        • Sten vs Bren

          I expect they will be offered another referendum.

          • Game Bird

            À la Ireland?

    • MrJones

      The EU is about power. They tempt capitalists with one hand (law by lobbyist) and tempt socialists with the other (social policy) but it’s not really either.

      • Game Bird

        They haven’t tempted any socialists have they?
        I don’t see any socialist support.

      • Alex

        Same as our governments. I judge the EU to be marginally better.

  • grimm

    No Cohen, spare ME! Your comment “Nothing I believe has been more shocking to left-wing opinion that the failure of the EU’s leaders to stop and say: ‘We are good Europeans who believe in solidarity and common decency. The levels of misery our policies are inflicting on southern Europe are intolerable. We cannot carry on like this” is so unreal as to be laughable.

    Your heroic and humanitarian left wingers have always allowed their ideology and their precious political/economic systems to override such bourgeois sentiments as “common decency”.

    Anyway, I’m sure that there are many, many things more shocking to left-wing opinion (always very selective in what it is prepared to be shocked by).

  • greggf

    The Euro suits most economies in Northern Europe where industry is part of the culture and keeping the books straight necessary.

    But that the € should be an ideal everywhere since Angela Merkel warned that “if the Euro fails, then Europe fails” has become part of classical Groupthink; just like the authorities in Rotherham, and elsewhere, were convinced Community Cohesion was more important than the child abuse by men from certain ethnic communities.

    However once the Groupthink can be scotched there is no reason why the EuroZone cannot have fewer members and be successful, and equally the rest of Europe.

  • SeanLM

    The EU is a left wing political organization– not an organization that facilitates the free flow of trade. If it was interested in economics, it wouldn’t restrict Israel’s settlement goods or take an interest in other countries’ gay rights, environmental policies, or immigration. Those are political issues. If the Eurocrats cared about international competitiveness then they would care that Europe’s share of world GDP has declined dramatically because, not in spite, of their organization. But they don’t care, because it is a political project designed to permanently lock in left-wing policies with a supra-national parliament. It doesn’t matter how many Eurosceptics get elected to the Euro Parlaiment. It is a ratchet that only goes one way. The EU’s policies towards Greece make perfect sense. The ultra-left wing Greek government must sacrifice itself temporarily (meaning the foreseeable future) for the “greater good”– i.e. locking left wing policies in the other EU countries while the EU prepares to swallow new ones like Ukraine, Albania, Turkey and Serbia. This whole project increasingly looks like the USSR with phony republics having phony powers delegated to them but with an anti-democratic elite making the real decisions. They’ve already said Greece’s referendum lacks legality and is meaningless… whatever that means. I have no doubt that they will find some stopgap way to kick the can down the road for another few months. The Eurocrats are amongst the most craven, corrupt, venal people who exist. No one ends up looking good in all of this except Switzerland, Iceland, and Norway which steered clear of the whole project.

    • Sten vs Bren

      “The EU is a left wing political organization”

      No. You can tell that it is not because of all the support that it has had from right wingers. The socialists have been dissenting from it since before it was called the EU.

  • SlothB77

    This author might be insane.

  • LoveMeIamALiberal

    “As many critics have said, the Tory version of British nationalism that followed had many hypocrisies. It did not want foreigners infringing national sovereignty when they were bureaucrats in Brussels but did not seem to mind them when they were generals at Nato or economists at the WTO.”

    Not sure who these “many critics” are but they are talking spherical objects. NATO generals were exercising agreed responsibilities for self defence; they didn’t try to seize more powers for themselves. Likewise WTO: rules freely agreed to by nation states with a body to police them that doesn’t try to aggrandize further powers to itself.

    Oh, and Tories aren’t nationalists, we’re patriots; we love our country without hating anyone else’s (unlike the BNP, SNP, Front National, National Socialists). Nick Cohen so nearly gets it, then trips over his laces and pulls down his own pants.

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