Thursday, 29 May 2014

The End of the European Dream?

As usual, the European Parliamentary elections last week attracted a low turnout - in most countries fewer than 50% of the population bothered to vote. This has usually been explained away by saying that most people, unless they have a (possibly unhealthy) interest in European politics to the expense of more normal pastimes like drinking and sport and girls and tv, don't understand - nor even particularly want to understand - the intricacies of the European Parliament or the voting system that feeds it. Up to a point this is undoubtedly true. Most people are more interested in what is happening in their own back-yard, not in some country a thousand miles and more away.   Probably the biggest number of people with any kind of interest in all this is the ex-pat community, from any nationality, for whom the Old Country still has a strong pull.  I've been critical in this blog on a number of occasions about the way Britain has changed over the years since I've been "away", but it's still my homeland, I still have friends and family there, so of course I'm interested in its political scene.  Of course I care.

But over the past few years, courtesy of the financial crisis that has gripped the whole world and come close to bankrupting some EU member states, notably Greece, Cyprus, Spain and Portugal, probably more ordinary people across the entire EU have become aware of how it works and what it's all about. And a lot of them clearly aren't too keen on what they have learned.

Across the EU there appears to be a growing movement against the way the EU is being run by the Franco-German bureaucrats and politicians who have been setting the agenda for years - and quite right too. The dream of a single entity covering the entire continent, with harmonized financial rules (especially in the area of taxation), a single defence force, common trade rules - amongst other delights - and no border controls, undoubtedly has some merit. But to achieve all that effectively means doing away with individual countries like Britain and France, Poland and Cyprus, and creating one single entity called Europe.

It will never happen, because most people do not want to be called "European", and continue to prefer the title of British or German, Danish or Portuguese. National identity is still paramount, especially I think in the old Soviet satellites like Bulgaria and Latvia and Poland and so on, and of course my own Little England. With it goes a desire to be masters of your own destiny, set your own laws and taxes and border controls, and not be dictated to by the Brussels mafia, if I may call the Commission that. No amount of reliance on a single all-encompassing euro (as a currency unit for all states) is going to change that, especially when said currency unit has been cobbled together in the way it was 15 years ago, and when states - despite insistence to the contrary from the European elite - flagrantly ignore or change their euro-membership criteria to suit their budgetary and political needs at the expense of everyone else.

There have of course been historical precedents to this mythical Euro superstate, manufactured confederations of different ethnicities and countries great and small, and most if not all have failed sooner or later. For example, the USSR and Yugoslavia were concocted largely through violent conquest of one kind or another, within the last century or so, and fell apart equally violently within 50-odd years. Kazakhs are Kazakh, Georgians are Georgian, and neither are Russian. Similarly Serbs and Croats are just that, and neither are Yugoslavian. I well remember the fall of the USSR and Communism 25 years ago, and equally the appalling bloodshed and genocide in the Balkan wars even more recently, and genuinely fear for the future of Ukraine and its people now. The lessons of history do not appear to have been learned by Mr. Putin and his cronies - or else the man simply doesn't care.   It seems, from today's signature of a new Russian-led trading bloc with Kazakhstan and Byelorus (both ex-USSR states, ruled by old style dictators and butchers) the old KGB relic is intent on recreating the USSR by stealth - and we should all be aware of the dangers inherent in that little scheme.

Is it any wonder parties like the Front Nationale in France, UKIP in Britain, and others across the length and breadth of the EU have made such significant progress just recently?  By no stretch of the imagination am I a supporter of old Nigel Farage, pint in one hand, fag in the other, but I can certainly appreciate his appeal to the average Brit.  It's probably fair to say that most people are sick to the eye teeth of the sound bite politics and lies that the likes of Blair and Brown, Cameron and Gove, Clegg and Cable have been foisting upon them for years, so Farage, with his blatantly Eurosceptic anti-immigration -nay, borderline racist - stance (even if his statements don't stand up to too much scrutiny) seems a decent alternative.  He isn't, and neither is his party a serious alternative to the Old Guard, which is a shame.  They need challenging.  The mould needs breaking. 

So I suspect the status quo will continue for a while yet and it will take the bankruptcy of a major player (France? Italy?) and consequent collapse of the euro to force the changes that most people in the EU clearly want.  In fairness, the EU leadership has recognised this mood swing and is threatening to do something about it.  It has promised "discussions" to try and decide how to make the EU more relevant and citizen friendly.  So that's a consultation that will probably take about four years - just in time for the next round of elections.  Which is, of course, part of the problem.  It will certainly be interesting to see whether the dissenting majority, now represented by UKIP and FN and Golden Dawn and a whole plethora of extremist groups (even neo-Nazis have managed to get in there) do indeed get their point across effectively and whether it's listened to at all by the Commission.  I'm not holding my breath for much change, quite frankly.

I remember some years ago, in a previous life, working for a small company in London, while preparations for the single currency were going on. We were invited by the Bank of England to give our views for inclusion in its White Paper on the subject (as were the LSE, LIFFE, major banks and other financial institutions). We went along and met with the Bank's team, in a small office with a nice view of the internal courtyard and an IBM desktop pc perched incongruously on a Queen Anne desk with brass drawer handles and a leather top. We told them we couldn't see it being a success, and reeled out the USSR/Yugoslavia comparison to illustrate our doubts. We felt that the southern European states (at that time only Italy, Greece and the Iberians) lacked the fiscal discipline to continue to meet their entry criteria and felt it only a matter of time before one or more defaulted and brought the whole house of cards crashing down. We gave it a maximum of 10 years before that happened. The Bank was flabbergasted - no-one else had expressed anything but enthusiasm, apparently. But we weren't far wrong - only the combined (and hugely unpopular) efforts of the larger states and their insistence on swingeing austerity measures have prevented it happening already.  Despite the recent economic upturn, Europe is not out of the woods yet - there may be more problems around the corner.

My prediction, for what it's worth, is that there may well be further fiscal problems to come, this time in France or Italy, and if that does happen there will be a reluctance amongst the remaining EU states to spend the amount of cash that would be needed to prop either state up.  So the default will happen and that will be that. The EU started as a trade bloc, and that is how it should have remained. All this federal hogwash and financial engineering remains, in my mind, a recipe of disaster.

We shall see.......