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The Government’s Fantasy Europe

The seven-page leaflet sent to us all by Mr Cameron, and the 200 pages provided by Mr Osborne – both eminently political documents about Europe – have one remarkable thing in common: they contain nothing about politics and little about Europe. The ‘EU’ to which they repeatedly allude is a distant abstraction: a bloodless organization we trade with. Their argument is solely based on [what they say is] our individual material interest as consumers. It does not treat us as citizens of a nation who might be and should be concerned with our own and Europe’s democracy, accountability and long-term social welfare.

Buffeted by crises, beset by shocks. How different the real EU is from the picture given here of a faceless, unchanging economic machine, with a future ‘based on the EU as it is today’, with ‘an ambitious agenda of economic reform’ about to be realized in Brussels. No hint is given that the EU today is in fact in the grip of intractable economic and political crises. Its first signs of economic failings go back forty years – ironically, just the moment Britain joined and then voted in the first referendum to stay. At that moment, European economic growth was beginning its long slow-down after a post-war boom which had made it seem such an attractive partner to Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson.

Worse came with successive steps towards a single currency in the 1980s and 90s, culminating in the introduction of the Euro in 2002. As was repeatedly warned at the time, this essentially political ambition (above all motivated by the French desire to control Germany) created an inherently unstable financial and economic conglomeration, vulnerable to ‘asymmetric shocks’ because of the very different economic positions of its member states. Such a shock duly came in 2007-08, and subsequently ravaged Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy and above all Greece; France too is in a chronically weakened state. Most are still marked by slow growth, high public debt and high unemployment, especially among the young and ethnic minorities. Hundreds of thousands are forced to migrate to other countries, notably Britain, to seek work often well below their qualifications.

Political Union, Democratic deficit and the Consequences for the EU. The Eurozone is now simply in limbo, waiting for the next crisis. Its only hope, according to both its defenders and its critics, is to create a single authority with control over the economic and financial policies of all the Eurozone states – in other words, to take over a central function of their governments. Last July, President Hollande was expressing this new orthodoxy in calling for ‘a Eurozone government’. It is very hard to see how this could actually be done. But if somehow it could, it would reduce democratically elected national governments to little more than local authorities.
Already, the severe financial stresses of the last eight years have dangerously aggravated chronic political dissatisfaction over the EU’s systemic ‘democratic deficit’ – the inability of citizens to direct its policy or hold its institutions to account. The realization by millions of voters that their elected national governments had lost, or were losing, control over major areas of policy – which meant that they themselves were losing their democratic rights – has stimulated the rise of populist parties of Right and Left all across the Continent. The most dramatic examples have been in Greece, Spain, France and Germany; but in several central and eastern European countries – including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic – governments themselves have moved in a sharply populist direction. Imagine the political fallout of an attempt to create a single Eurozone government!

This combination of economic and political tensions has inevitably led to the rise of varieties of Euroscepticism in most EU countries, particularly strong among those groups – particularly the poor and the unemployed – who feel that the EU treats them as of little account. The beneficiaries of this unhappiness are often highly unpleasant and even dangerous political movements. In France, at the heart of the whole project of European integration since the 1950s, the Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, has been the most dynamic political force of the last decade, winning some 30 percent of the vote in the 2015 regional elections. It has now adopted a clear Eurosceptic position.

Over half of French citizens would now like a referendum on France’s EU membership, and only a minority definitely support remaining in the EU. Although it remains unlikely that Madame Le Pen will be elected president in 2016 (an outcome that would almost certainly cause a constitutional crisis and widespread public disorder), serious commentators no longer regard it, as once they did, as impossible.

An alarming state of uncertainty and flux. For all these reasons, the EU that the British government paints assumes in its official publications to be as a stable, untroubled, unquestioned source of stability, security and prosperity, is in reality in an alarming state of uncertainty and flux.

Many of the EU’s strongest defenders fear it is threatened by collapse. Leaving aside the question of whether it is honest politics to skate over this reality, it certainly makes forecasts of the sort the Treasury has produced meaningless. It is impossible to make assumptions about the state of the EU in even a few years’ time, let alone in fifteen. Doing so has all the intellectual solidity of those quaint Pacific Island cargo cults, whose devotees believed that one day a large aircraft will shower them with consumer goods from the heavens.


Professor Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Professor of French History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St John’s College. He is co-editor of Briefings for Britain and his publications include The English and Their History (2014) and, with Isabelle Tombs, That Sweet Enemy: The British and the French from the Sun King to the Present (2006). His Politeia publications include The State, National Identity and Schools (2017, with New Direction) and Triggering Article 50, Courts, Government and Parliament (2017).

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