The European dream slowly unravels

I am one of nature’s political optimists. But 2015 is one of those years where it is all going wrong. The Lib Dem near wipe out in this year’s UK General Election, for one thing. The rise of Islamic State is another – along with the spread of vicious Islamophobia promoted by such outfits as Britain First. Meanwhile state after state in the Middle East and Africa is failing, with vicious dictatorships taking hold in other countries. This gives Israeli hardliners the cover they need advance their own brand of apartheid, and the ghettoisation of Gaza. Any attempt at finding a humane middle way is undermined by extremists of one sort or another, in country after country.

And now, as Gideon Rachman points out in yesterday’s FT, the European dream is dying before our eyes. The idea of ever closer European union was one of the formative ones in my own politics. In 1975 I was a 17-year old that was definitely ready to vote in that year’s British referendum on Europe. I’m not sure why it should have caught my imagination so – I grew up in postwar prosperity, where the World War was just an interesting piece of history. I suppose I found British society so staid and constricting that I wished for its institutions to be subsumed into something much more modern and exciting. I meet many people of my age that feel the same way though.

But apart from opening out British society and commerce, the EU represented a path towards civilised governance and prosperity for the undemocratic countries on its fringes. Greece was the first country to take the path of throwing off dictatorship and coming in to the mothership of Europe. 35 years on and the achievements look hollow. Greece took on the trappings of a well-managed European democracy but did not take it to heart. It remained run by a rich elite which did as it pleased, while bribing the rest of society with generous pensions and meaningless public sector jobs. They became artful in keeping that show on the road by extracting grants and loans from the rest of the union at the same time as disregarding rules they did not like. They even managed to join the Euro, reducing borrowing costs, and allowing the fiction of a properly functioning European state to continue. But sooner or later the music had to stop. And when it did the foundations of the European project looked shallow. There is an absence of trust and solidarity.

The Greeks themselves, or at least those that govern them, seem in denial about the sort of reforms that will be needed to get them on the path to prosperity. They claim to be victims, condemned as to doom-spiral of “austerity”, with many Anglo-Saxon economic commentators (Noble Laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz among them) cheering them on. But dig a bit deeper and we find that words such as “austerity” and “reform” have been abused so that a lot of the dialogue is at cross purposes. The Syriza government wants to reform some aspects of the Greek state, but sees no problem with those aspects that I have referred to as “bribery”: maintaining ineffective public sector jobs and unaffordable state benefits, such as pensions.This leads to the suspicion, especially amongst Germans, that all the Greek government want to do is to keep the old, failed way of running the state on the road, lurching from bailout to bailout, using moral blackmail each time.

The Germans, of course, are hardly blameless. Their banks kept the Greek show on the road, in the apparent anticipation that their government would bail them out if things went wrong. That expectation proved sound enough – most of the bailout money went to them, and practically nothing towards providing the investment the Greeks so badly need. The Greek government’s moral case is not entirely hollow – but their combative approach to negotiation is destroying trust. No wonder that British Eurosceptics urge the UK government to emulate such tactics in their dealings with the EU! Even now the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras, suggests that a No vote in the forthcoming referendum is just a step in the negotiation, not a real moment of decision. Those European leaders who have been trying to fudge things to get a deal, like Claude Juncker, the President of the EU Commission, feel betrayed.

The prospect of Greece dropping out of the Euro and then the EU is steadily growing. This would be a calamity for Greeks, and raises the prospect of yet another failed state. As more than one commentator has suggested, if the Greek ruling elites had what ti takes to run an independent monetary policy, they would not have got into this mess in the first place. It would mark a big moment for the EU too. Its first major defeat. But it has limited powers; it cannot make an unwilling partner reform itself.

And old Europhiles like me must wake up and acknowledge the truth behind that. Our dream cannot be fulfilled. The EU is a confederation, not a federal state. It cannot bind its members by force of arms, as the United Stares did when some of its members tried to secede over 150 years ago.

The question now is whether the EU can survive a Greek exit, or will it be the start of a general process of disintegration. Greece is not the only country to be a cause for concern. The other bailout cases -Spain, Portugal and Ireland – were always more serious about reform and integration, and I do not see these as being of immediate concern. Cyprus, with its cultural ties to Greece, may be different. But the future integration of Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria are far from secure.  At least they are not members of the Euro.

Greece seems to be the lesson that the EU learns by. After its entry to the Euro, the EU became much stricter about allowing further new members. After its flawed bailout, which let many private sector investors off the hook, it was much stricter with Cyprus.

But what is emerging is a different Europe. One where much less solidarity is expected. And one with an Exit door. It is a system of rules and standards that facilitate free trade, environmental cooperation and good governance – but one where it if you fail you are out. Integration is not necessarily in one direction. The union will no longer be ever closer.

Into this sad situation the British Prime Minister David Cameron enters with his attempt at British renegotiation, leading to a referendum. This may seem to be the last thing that Europe needs. But Mr Cameron’s negotiating skills are far more advanced than Mr Tsipras’s, and he is showing much more application than hitherto. This cloud offers a silver lining. It may define a looser union, but if the British public votes to stay in it will offer a counter-narrative to the slow disintegration that is happening elsewhere. Such is what is left of my European dream.

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