I have been trying to get my head round what happened in Europe this past week—particularly with regard to what our Prime Minister David Cameron has managed to achieve.
Events in Euroland are just too big for me to assimilate. I am unable to find words to express my thoughts rationally. Bombarded by news and comment from all parts of the media, I simply put up my hands in resignation and switch off.
Part of me is chuckling at headless chickens running around trying to save a failing system. Part of me slips into deep despair at the total lack of vision of our global leaders, and worries where it will all end.
One reason why I have not been blogging about this whole ongoing farce is that I promised myself I would try to be more positive in outlook. However, the lunacy going on around us will insist on encroaching into my life. As Harold Macmillan famously said, when asked what represented the greatest challenge for a statesman, “Events, my dear boy, events.”
I’ll leave any acerbic comment about lightweight leaders of the 21st century Conservative Party hanging at that point. Any British political party for that matter.
The lie of the land
I am an unreconstructed and unrepentant liberal. I make no apologies for that. I sit firmly in the centre, perhaps even on the proverbial fence. Those of the “left” and “right” have managed to sidle their way into my centre ground so well that it is impossible to squeeze a fag paper between us. When the Liberal-Democrats got into bed with the Conservatives, after the 2010 general election failed to let anyone win sufficient seats to claim a mandate, I was sceptical but hopeful the coalition agreement would temper the excesses of the right. I blogged about it here. Perhaps the liberal tendencies would temper the rabid Conservatism of the Bullingdon Club elites.
I was so wrong. Nick Clegg has let me—us—down. So far, the fact there are Lib-Dem members of the Cabinet has had little effect or no effect on what can now be seen as an utterly out-of-touch and rabidly right-wing Tory government obviously bent on destroying decades of social good, yet all the while blaming it on the previous administration. Let’s just leave it that. As far as I am concerned, the “ConDem” coalition has made everything infinitely worse over the past year or so.
Keep on course
Where are we going with this? It’s a question that has vexed many liberals for some time, I suspect.
As I mentioned, I have been avoiding putting into words what I think about events in the wider world because I simply cannot find the words to explain how I feel. I began to see the European “project” being moved in a direction I was not comfortable with, a direction that would lead to individual member states effectively giving up sovereign rights to become part of a United States of Europe. I found I was not in favour of ever greater European integration. To me that was not something I wanted a part in. Yet I have literally no say. In referendums to approve treaties, a country votes “no”, only to be told to vote again and this time vote “yes”. How is that democratic?
No, Europe is heading in a direction I am not happy with. I am all for economic co-operation, borderless travel, even a single currency (at first), but not a superstate.
So, being outside Europe—as we now find ourselves thanks to inept leadership—must be a good thing, right? Well, no. Britain needs to be in Europe at a level where we can make a difference. What Cameron and his lack of statesmanship has done is to isolate the United Kingdom even more than it was before. We won’t be listened to at the European level, even where we still have a voice.
This is where understanding and words fail me once more. I admit the following is still liberal in scope, but Andrew Rawnsley, Nick Cohen and Will Hutton in today’s Observer explain it so well I urge you to read them whatever your own political views. The Observer and Guardian are about the only publications that give a liberal view of the world: the rest of our media is so polarised it makes it all but impossible to get a balanced view, as far as I can tell.
(Don’t read the comments, though. Never read comments to online opinion—that way madness lies.)
The rest of the European Union simply shrugged at his “veto” and will now proceed to try to fashion a new regime for the eurozone without a British voice in the room. The prime minister’s agenda is left in shreds. He did not get the protocol he wanted to exempt the UK from European regulation of financial services and Britain’s exclusion from the negotiations means that he is now even less likely to secure one in the future. He may get a hero’s welcome from some of the Tory Eurosceptics who are exulting in Britain’s isolation and celebrating this as the most magnificent performance since Margaret Thatcher wielded the handbag. But that is likely to prove to be very short-lived. They forget that Mrs T never made the mistake of leaving an empty chair where Britain ought to be sitting. Once their initial euphoria has worn off, Tory sceptics will discover that this outcome does not advance their ambition to repatriate powers from Brussels—it has made it even harder to achieve.
The weekend’s headlines about David Cameron isolating Britain or bravely standing up for Britain’s independence, depending on which newspaper you read, may be irrelevant in a fortnight. The best reason for treating them with suspicion is that political actors are enjoying playing their familiar roles and reciting their old lines. British Eurosceptics are thrilled that David Cameron has reignited the passions of the Thatcher era. European leaders are again boasting of their commitment to the European ideal.
When you look at what that commitment means in practice, however, you see it is more of the same. Germany, Holland and the other northern countries are still refusing to spend the money or allow the inflation that would stop southern Europe descending into depression and dragging down the over-leveraged banking system with it. Trade imbalances and an uncompetitive exchange rate still crush Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.
There might have been a case for David Cameron to veto the use of the EU treaties for the eurozone bailout if Britain’s national interests had really been threatened. But they were not. Much of British finance in whose name Cameron exercised his veto—routine banking, insurance and accounting—was wholly unaffected by any treaty change. The financial services industry in Britain constitutes 7.5% of GDP and employs a million people; the City represents perhaps a third of that and, in turn, that part threatened—if it was threatened at all—some fraction of that. This is a tiny economic interest. If the coalition is serious about rebalancing the British economy, it is preposterous to place a fragment of the City at the forefront of our national priorities.
Moreover, any tax, such as the financial transaction tax about which Cameron was so exercised (and which is, in any case, a good idea if done right as recommended by the IMF), has to be agreed by all. Which means that the threat was nil. Even regulatory proposals, although proceeding by qualified majority voting, have in financial services proceeded, in reality, by unanimity.