I Lament an Unborn Europe
How David Cameron Missed his Big Chance
This article is an obituary for a Europe that never was, the one that ought to have been forged in the heat of these several crises that have depressed our continent since 2008.
Since the referendum I have been haunted by thoughts of what might have been. David Cameron had an opportunity to change Europe for the better and failed.
The currency crisis, Syrian exodus, and religiously-inspired terror which have increasingly menaced us in these last eight years have been exacerbated by a lack of European leadership: I believe this is structural.
Our executive, the European Council, is made up of each member’s head of government. Officially, policies require a qualified majority to pass, more commonly a unanimous decision is sought.
The politics of our executive is complicated further by the presence of two presidents: that of the commission, currently held by Jean Claude Junker, and the rotating presidency of the Council, held by Poland.
I would like to demonstrate how the process of coalition-building in the executive council has deprived Europe of its ability to resolve the challenges which are holding back our continent, and by extension global recovery.
While Europe has been inching towards a solution to this recession through various means, such as the creative use of European Central Bank instruments to create a lender of last resort where there was none before, the most emblematic strategy has been the use of bail-outs for states in exchange for fiscal retrenchment. This has placed a heavy burden on Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, but particularly on Greece.
Angela Merkel is one of my favourite politicians: one of the ways she arrives at positions at home and abroad is by listening to what her opponents say they want. If these demands are compatible with her as-yet-unrevealed agenda they are incorporated into her plan as integral parts of the mechanism.
In the cases where she deviates from this strategy, such as in the unilateral closure of German nuclear plants or her invitation to refugees from Syria, it is on a point of moral principle. There is much to admire about Merkel as an operator, even if the end results produce their own complications.
There is another area where Merkel has not sought a compromise: Greece. When Germany was signing up to the Euro as a project it was on the basis that it would be a sound currency backed up with fiscal rectitude, as the Deutschmark had been: each state would look after its budgets on its own account and no transfers to profligate states would be made.
No leader of Germany can go back on that promise: to do so would undermine not only the public’s confidence in the European project, but in the policy which has made Germany itself one of the world’s leading and most advanced economies.
Such a reversal would require a huge change in the way Germans see their own economy: a leap at least as dramatic as the ones Britons would need to perform to transfer parliamentary powers to a central European state.
This is the reason fiscal retrenchment is at the heart of Europe’s economic policy. This, and that Britain and France were both embarking on deficit reduction strategies themselves.
Other strategies were available for Greece: rather than tying the bailouts to economic reform and immediate repayment, the bailouts could have been exchanged for dismantling the patronage system which has encouraged profligacy. Repayments could have been delayed.
The Syrian civil war and exodus has also exposed gaps in Europe’s ability to operate in times of crisis.
Merkel’s invitation to refugees was humane and courageous. If there is a symbol for everything Europe should stand for, it was this act. But this unilateral action subverted the Dublin accord, whereby refugees must claim asylum in the country in which they first arrive.
When Hungary closed its borders to stem the exodus, starting a chain reaction across South-Eastern Europe, it did so on perfectly legal grounds. It also left migrants stranded in Greece, whose economy cannot absorb such an influx.
In signing an agreement with Turkey to stop migrants at their border in exchange for an accelerated visa process for Turkish citizens, Merkel made the best of a bad situation. But given the actions of Erdogan in the wake of this recent coup, well foreshadowed by his ambition to turn Turkey into a theocratic presidency, I would call this policy shameful: not for Mrs Merkel, but for the states which refused to extend their hands to people in desperate need.
Here, no coalition in the Council was possible to make way for a legal mechanism by which these people could be rescued and resettled. The creation of a European border force and coastguard was only approved by parliament last month: belatedly, we have arrived at perhaps a third of a solution.
Yesterday, a priest in Normandy was murdered in the latest in a string of terror attacks. The perpetrator was known to have attempted to join ISIS in Syria: I do not know which agency turned him back, but I expect we will be hearing more about the failings of the security services in the next few weeks,
Europe’s anti-terror capabilities are not fully integrated. In the case of the Paris attacks of November 2015, at least one terror operative’s passport was checked by Greek authorities without ringing alarm bells. ISIS channelled resources for the attack through Belgium. Some of the attackers were known to French intelligence.
There was a disconnect between French, Greek and Belgian authorities which could have been coordinated by a unified European intelligence agency. A missed link is all that stands between terror and security.
The Europe we are leaving is not the Europe I am mourning for. One of the reasons we are leaving is because Europe is demonstrably flawed: where it hasn’t been powerless, it has bungled.
David Cameron was not the right person to re-negotiate our terms with Europe. Each of these crises had a solution: a singular executive presiding over a democratically accountable legislature. The apparatus of a functional state. A Europe that can legislate on its own behalf, rather than being beholden to the individual political interests of its heads of government.
Our former PM was not a Euro-sceptic. He was Euro-ignorant. He became leader of the Conservatives on a promise to withdraw from the European People’s Party to win over supporters of David Davis, our new cabinet minister for leaving. He set up the European Conservatives and Reformists bloc, where British Tories now sit alongside an impressive list of neo-fascists including the True Finns and the Danish People’s Party. To make such a choice, he must have sincerely regarded his leadership of the Tory party to be more important than his party’s influence on the European stage.
It must have been this naivete and impetuous outlook that lead him to seriously believe that he could veto the 2011 deal to commit EU member states to greater fiscal rectitude without alienating our allies, and that the rest of the EU wouldn’t just go on without us.
The anti-climax of his renegotiation was the final failure of a PM whose career was based on a strategy of ignoring Europe as an issue. I still cannot quite believe that we are leaving the EU because he chose to use our membership as a gambling chip in a game against a rebellious wing of his party: what a reckless amateur.
What really gets me, however, is that he had the right strategy at the right time. He didn’t go far enough.
The Eurozone area needs deeper integration if it is going to over-come the three crises I have written about here: but it cannot bring along states such as Britain, Denmark and Poland along with them in that process. Those states who do not yet use the Euro range from being sceptical of deeper integration to believing integration should be gradual.
I do not believe that David Cameron considered the possibility of forming an alliance with these members: to create a bloc to argue for the formal codification of tier-two Europe, complete with a bill of rights to protect the periphery from the deeper integration between the core states. Such coalition building could not be beholden to an arbitrary deadline like 2017.
By laying out the powers non-Eurozone states would reserve for themselves, we would have acknowledged that ever-closer union was inevitable for most of Europe’s members: they may as well get on with it, seeing as Europe needs more power now. Britain would be under no obligation to join: its sovereignty would be guaranteed even within the Union. A trade could be made of greater rights in exchange for more power for a core Europe.
Rather than Britain leaving Europe, it could have opened the possibility of finalising the European state, or clarifying the terms of a deeper confederacy; a state or confederate government Britain would already be in the common market with, as a partner and cheerleader.
The referendum question ought to have been something like: “Do you wish to join the European core, or be outside of it?”, and it ought to have been asked to every member of the union.
Without Britain, which was always the strongest anti-federalist, free-market voice in the European debate, I don’t believe any such alliance is now tenable. Britain, France and Germany have historically been the bodies around which alliances of other states have chosen to orbit for one cause or another. Poland best matches Britain’s agenda, but is not currently in any state to pursue it.
So this is the Europe I mourn: a Europe with the power to shape its own destiny, with Britain in a defining role.