I love Europe. A rash of recent trips in the cause of Your Favourite Etcetera has taken me, in recent months, to Amsterdam, Leipzig, Dresden and Switzerland, and I’ll be doing much the same in Helsinki before the year is out. Whenever I am in Europe I am struck by how civilized it is compared with my own country. Walking around a German city at night one is less likely to run into gangs of drunken louts, or witness inappropriately dressed young women vomiting on the sidewalk, than one is in – say – Norwich. In the words of a British academic of my acquaintance, now resident in the U. S. and A., Britain is ‘coarse’.
As you both will know by now, I am an admirer of Boris Johnson, a man whom posterity will mark as the greatest statesman of this or any other age. Mr Johnson, too, is a Europhile, and celebrates the freedom that membership of the European Union confers. In his latest eructation in the Daily Torygraph he writes:
In many ways, I would say that the Common Market was a success. We now have a single market, where British people are allowed to come and live here, to trade, to make their lives wherever they like in a vast community of European nations. You can set yourself up as an aromatherapist in Alicante or a dentist in Lodz. You have a perfect right, as a Briton, to ply your trade as a ski instructor in Courchevel — and if some French union of ski instructors tries to block you, then you have single-market legislation to protect you.
So what’s gone wrong? ‘Where the project has come adrift,’ he says,
is in the past 20 years, when it has frankly tried to go too fast and too far in advance of the wishes of the people; and that, I fear, is what we are about to do yet again in our efforts to “solve” the euro crisis.
Mr Johnson then shows how countries like Greece have borrowed too much in the good times, taking advantage of a sense of security (now shown to be false) that being a member of the Eurozone would somehow make up for poor governance, over-spending on social services, and – crucially – the failure of its taxmen to enforce their own rules on the rich. Says Boris:
The problem with the institutions of Brussels was always that people were invited to take advantage of a system where no one was really in charge and everyone was paying. The Common Agricultural Policy was like one of those boozy journalists’ dinners in Strasbourg, where someone sneakily decided to order the lobster because he knows the bill is going to be split.
And here’s the problem. Under the rules of the EU, member countries should not have a debt that exceeds a certain proportion of gross domestic product. But when these selfsame rules are flouted by Europe’s big players such as France and Germany, and Greece is admitted to the Eurozone even though it was known to be unqualified to do so, is it any wonder that the Eurozone is now in crisis? Is it any wonder, when the EU has never passed an internal audit of its own finances, that quite a few people in the U. of K. are very wary of throwing good money after bad? The EU has many things going for it, but in practical terms it’s a disaster – it is run, it seems, for a narrow self-serving clique, largely untrammeled by public opinion, and yet much of our own legislation is dictated by the same people whose positions seem immune from our opinion as voters.
No-one doubts that our relationship with the EU is close – the Eurozone is our largest trading partner, so if it goes down, so do we – even though we aren’t members. This is why there is much merit in seeking a much looser relationship with the EU. As Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin puts it, again in the Torygraph, relieving the burdensome regulation imposed on us by EU legislation will make Britain more competitive and largely make up for any disadvantage incurred by a loosening of ties. As it stands, Chancellor George Osborne’s efforts at deficit reduction are vitiated by Europe’s demands.
Today the government will be debating a motion on whether it will pay attention to a petition, signed by more than 100,000 people, suggesting that we should have a referendum in which voters are asked directly whether we should renegotiate our position in Europe, even to the extent of leaving the EU. This petition mechanism was introduced with the aim of making politics more ‘relevant’ to people – which is why Prime Minister David Cameron is wrong to try and face it down – this is a fight he could have avoided. Conservative politicians will be required to vote against the idea – even though the vote, however it turns out, will not be binding.
In Europe, Britain has long been seen as a cuckoo in the nest, wanting to join, and then, once in, whining about it. David Cameron and French President Sarkozy had what seems to have been an almighty barney about this recently. ‘We’re sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do,’ quoth the husband of one supermodel to the other – ‘You say you hate the euro, you didn’t want to join and now you want to interfere in our meetings.’ No doubt M. Sarkozy went to on to accuse Mr Cameron’s mother of being a hamster, and, notwithstanding inasmuch as which, that his father smelled of elderberries.
This is all so much fol-de-rol and flapdoodle, because M Sarkozy knows that the British position on the euro and the general mismanagement of Europe is right. But no-one is popular who is justified in saying ‘I Told You So’.
What, then, is to be done?
Should Britain do its best to muck in, helping the Eurozone back on its feet, at great (indeed bottomless) financial (and political) cost, with the only reward perhaps the whisper of talks about talks of Euro-reform in some nebulous future?
Or should we cut ourselves free as soon as possible, letting them sort things out for themselves?
I think Britain’s position in relation to the EU is that (metaphorically speaking) of the wife who adores her violent, alcoholic husband and is convinced that he can change his ways, if only she can talk him round, give him another chance, believe it when he says – in his sober moments – that he’ll try his best to reform.
Her choices are stark.
She can stay where she is, putting up with being beaten up every night and seeing the pittance she earns pissed away in boozing and betting. Or she can scoop up the kids, flee her only home and make a run for it into an uncertain future.
Tough one, isn’t it?