The fallacy of the ‘wrong turn’

There are many fallacies in the EU debate but one that keeps returning with monotonous regularity is the fallacy of the ‘wrong turn’.

Historically this has turned up in the Conservative debate on the EU as a belief that the EU never used to be about political union — that it started life as an economic union yet somehow strayed towards political union at a later date. Some like John Redwood appear to put the date of this change some time between the signing of the Single European Act and the Treaty of Maastricht. In January 2014, Redwood wrote:

“The single market may have started out as a well intentioned project to allow freer trade between EU member states, but soon became a power grab by regulators and governors out to limit and control economic activity from the Brussels centre of the emerging European government.”

Redwood is on the Thatcherite wing of the party and thus has good reason to excuse everything up to the end of Thatcher’s reign.

But others go back even further, still desperate to believe that Britain was joining a common market in the 1970s, despite it now being abundantly clear — partly courtesy of the 30 year rule — that it wasn’t. Even back then and indeed even farther back to the original 1957 Treaty of Rome, the union was political and member states were committing to “Ever closer union”. But in this context, one continues to hear how the EU back then “served a purpose” and “contributed to the economic improvement of the region” (as well as allegedly maintaining the peace).

A cynic might conclude that for years such Conservatives were not only duped, but were duping the public about “Europe” and now quietly recognise their mistake. Boxing up the period 1957–c.1990 into one of economic free trade allows the party to explain away its former enthusiasm and, for some individuals, explains away their Yes vote in 1975 [Redwood actually voted No but Margaret Thatcher voted Yes].

Norman Lamont seems a reasonable example of the genre, stating recently that [emphasis added]:

“The creation of the euro has been an error of historic dimensions and done great harm to the EU, which in its first 40 years had brought economic prosperity to the citizens of the Continent.”

But we now have a new kind of “wrong turn-er” who also made an EU-related intellectual error of the highest order and who now seeks to explain it away.

This is the phenomenon of the europhile “wrong turn-er” often suggesting the euro was a wrong turn for the EU.

The Open Europe think tank was the original “wrong turn-er” in this space and far ahead of the pack, seeing the euro as a wrong turn and slamming the idiocy of those who supported the new currency while remaining fundamentally pro-EU themselves. The group doesn’t want to see a Brexit despite their own research concluding that such an event would be essentially economically neutral.

Others have been coming out of the woodwork in recent years, especially when the eurozone crisis blows up. A rather good recent example is here, although being written from a Greek crisis perspective it tends to go further than others.

A more measured commentary following the“wrong turn” narrative was written by Sony Kapoor in The Guardian in February 2015. This was a more narrowly defined argument that the euro has been mismanaged rather than it being fundamentally wrong. None the less, the article author was seeking an intellectual way out by trying to explain away the eurozone itself as taking a wrong turn.

A further example talks about assessing whether European integration is on the right track with the euro before concluding that it is not.

These examples of course have the “wrong turn” narrative in common but all of them also only scratch the surface of the issue as they fail to understand the EU’s history. Specifically that:

a) the euro was very much a logical step in EU integration having been mooted as early as the 1950s and cropping up constantly through each subsequent decade before eventual monetary union in 1999.

b) the EU normally works towards political union by stealth, by “beneficial crisis” and by engrenage or the Monnet Method (the process of economic harmonisation & integration). The fact monetary union happened before political union was not a mistake - in fact it was anything but. The euro was the process of engrenage writ large, with every prospect of a beneficial crisis down the line that would drive political union forwards.

In other words, the “wrong turn” narrative doesn’t work when considering the broader historical perspective. It makes events appear accidental/ mistaken rather than by design. It therefore does not confront the basic truth of what the EU is and has always been. Worse, the narrative increasingly attempts to cauterise the euro to protect the main body of the EU itself. Indeed, one can’t help wondering whether that is its purpose.

So while it is tempting to welcome the new “wrong turn-ers” to a more realistic view of the euro and the EU, their continuing (deliberate?) misreading of the EU’s nature means, like Open Europe, they must be treated with extreme caution.