The European Union After the Backlash – Gone in 20 Years?
About ten years ago an American friend asked me what I thought about the future of the European Union. At the time it was riding high. Ten additional states, including eight former communist countries, had just joined. The Euro was two years old, and seemed to be bedding in nicely. There was hardly a hint of troubles to come. The Greeks were busy cooking their books and gorging themselves on borrowed money. Most of the other states south of Munich were floating merrily like drunken sailors on a sea of debt. And in the UK we were assured that the inflow of workers from the new member states would have minimal impact on our booming economy.
I replied that the EU was likely to implode within 30 years if it continued on its path towards “ever closer union”. Over time, I thought, with the level of political and economic integration envisaged by the Union’s leaders of the time, it would become harder to assimilate new members because the barriers to entry would become progressively higher.
So we would be left with Fortress Europe, an exclusive club, becoming wealthier, and a number of neighbouring states becoming increasingly envious. The modern equivalent of hungry barbarians at the gates of the Roman Empire, if you like. The North African states were becoming a conduit for economic refugees from further south – Sudan, Somalia, the Sahel countries, and there was increasing pressure on Greece, Spain, and Italy to secure their borders against a rising tide of economic migrants and political refugees. Once in the EU, the migrants headed north, into France and Germany, and, in many cases into the UK via Calais and the Channel Tunnel.
It seemed to me that a one-size-fits-all set of rules and institutions applied to countries with very different languages, cultures and histories would create a rigid structure that would eventually fracture. Better, I reckoned, to keep things looser, so that the Union could adapt, not break. Otherwise the result would be increasing instability – not so much from within, but from without. Integrating new members was the issue, rather than dealing with the fractious individualism of those already within the fortress. Would we respond to the poor on our borders by erecting concrete barriers that might collapse and trigger a disorderly surge of needy humanity, or by creating porous structures that gradually allow the human floods to seep through in a controlled fashion?
I was wrong. The first serious challenge to the integrity of the EU came from within. The debt binge became a debt crisis. The resultant austerity, combined with the 2008 financial meltdown, impoverished huge numbers of citizens. Some countries coped with austerity better than others – Ireland and Iceland (not a member, but inextricably linked to the EU economy) for example. Other countries went into denial – France and Italy. The wealthiest nations – Germany and the Nordic countries – sailed on regardless – their standards of living the least affected.
The bail-out countries – Spain, Greece, Portugal and Ireland – have suffered the most. High unemployment and a sense of lost sovereignty as they bow to the demands of the central bankers and politicians of the lending countries.
No matter that economists are seeing light at the end of the tunnel for the basket cases, and that the wealthier economies are on the road to recovery. The legacy of 2008 is pent-up frustration among swathes of people across the EU at the decline in living standards. They want someone to blame, and what better target than immigrants who take our jobs, foreigners whose presence dilutes our culture, people with darker skins who remind us that our society is not our own any more, and religious extremists whose views and actions seem to reject the core values of the societies we grew up in? The English, the French, the Swedes, the Danes, the Finns and the Greeks all seem to be saying the same thing: we are losing our national identity. The established national politicians and unelected Eurocrats are the chosen culprits.
No amount of reasoned argument and dispassionate presentation of facts will persuade many people in Peterborough – a typical mid-sized market town in eastern England – that the newcomers from Poland, Estonia and Pakistan are a good thing. According to the BBC, the town has seen an influx of 25,000 immigrants over the past ten years – one in eight of the population. The people of Peterbrough see Polish butchers and Lithuanian delicatessen in high streets previously populated with greengrocers and bookshops run by locals. Don’t try to persuade them that high streets were already having the life sucked out of them by Tesco and Amazon.com, and that the gaps left by dead businesses might otherwise be populated by charity shops and Poundland stores. It’s all the fault of the immigrants, and of those who let them in.
The French see the secular state established by the revolutionaries of 1789 as threatened by women in veils and criminal gangs from the former colonies taking over the suburbs of Paris, Marseille and Lyon. The Greeks see their capital overrun by Albanians, Iraqis, Afghans and refugees from the Balkan civil wars.
So they want to “take back their countries”, just as do ageing white Americans in Republican heartlands who coalesce around the Tea Party. And it doesn’t take much for an educated right-wing demagogue who is able to articulate the broad-brush concerns of the disinherited, disenfranchised and alienated to act as a lightning rod for the growing army of electors who have grown impatient waiting for the promises of imminent prosperity by their mainstream politicians to come true.
Demagogues abhor complexity. Their stock in trade is black and white. Their currency is emotion – anger, nostalgia, fear and despair. And those who heed their messages are not to be swayed by facts or analysis that contradict what people experience personally – benefit cuts, job losses, foreign languages in our streets, Polish plumbers, Bulgarian fruit pickers, Estonian baristas and Roma camped on our streets. To hell with statistics. The politicians who can’t see what’s going on are out of touch, right?
The net result of the outpouring of rage across the EU will be politicians of all stripes vowing to “listen to the voters”. They will fine-tune their policies to bring all but the most extreme elements of the disaffected back into the fold. Don’t for a minute believe that Britain’s UKIP and France’s Front National will achieve political power. Influence they already have in spades. But dealing with the task of governing would either be the end of them, or as much a disaster for their countries as the bumbling Nazi bureaucrats and their psychopathic leaders were for Germany. (And no death threats please – I’m not suggesting Farage and Le Pen are psychopathic Nazis, merely that ideologues, psychopathic or not, have a habit of leading their people down blind alleys. Though speaking of Nazis, it’s interesting to note that the rise of UKIP has coincided with the eclipse of the British National Party in the European elections. I wonder who hoovered up the deserting BNP voters?) Besides, there are many powerful vested interests within and without the wealthier EU countries that will come together to prevent the “protest parties” from achieving direct power.
More likely, the “European Project” will ossify. There will be a deadlock between those who want to bring it down and those for whom it remains a comfortable meal ticket.
So my prediction has 20 years left to come true. Has the current crisis brought the due date forward?
Probably not, and hopefully not. Because if the break-up happens earlier it’s likely to be a rupture rather than a graceful separation. Integration has gone so far that it will take a revolution of sorts to destroy what has been created. And revolutions usually occur as the consequence of hard times, not good. All too often they bring chaos and suffering in their wake, sometimes on a far greater scale than the conditions that triggered them, as we are seeing in Syria and Libya today. Another financial crisis, a military confrontation, pestilence or man-made disaster – all candidates for a catastrophic failure of the European system. It’s not difficult to see the potential for any of them in the next couple of decades.
The best possible scenario would be an amicable divorce, where we reach the point at which there is no critical emergency, but where different factions within the Union come to the conclusion that the future is best without it. Perhaps a north-south split, or even several progeny. A Baltic Union, consisting of the Nordic members and Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. A German-dominated middle European Union consisting of Germany, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Poland and Austria. To the south, a Mediterranean association between Italy, Spain Portugal, Greece, Malta and Cyprus. And to the east a Balkan group consisting of Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, the former Yugoslav states and even Turkey. The remaining big players, Britain and France, might fancy their chances standing alone (if Britain hasn’t already done so). And it will be the secession of key players that is likely to trigger the wholesale dissolution of the Union.
These groupings could continue to be bound together by free trade treaties, but the most rigid structure of all – the Euro – would have to go. If it survived, it would most likely serve as the currency of the German group. Historians reading this would immediately question whether groups of countries along these lines would be able to look beyond old enmities, particularly in the Balkans but also in the grouping led by Germany. It’s a good question, and it would depend on the structures that were established and the economic well-being of the constituent members.
Be it through catastrophic disintegration or ordered political settlement, I stand by my prediction that the EU as we know it today will no longer exist by 2034. By that time I’ll be in my dotage, but I shall watch with doddery interest how events unfold in the meanwhile.
Of one thing I’m certain. If Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and all the other right wing politicians whose voices have rung loud and clear over the past week think that they can achieve even a rough facsimile of the counties they would like to reclaim, they are naïve or deceitful. There is no reset button to restore La France Profonde or England’s green and pleasant land. Not that either existed beyond literary fantasy in the first place.
What’s done is done. The present can be changed, but that change is no more likely to be to the taste of the disaffected voters than the conditions that have driven them to the polls today. Such changes as might satisfy some are likely to upset others.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself in Tewkesbury, another of those small English towns that, like Peterborough, seems to be one of UKIP’s natural constituencies. I visited Tewkesbury Abbey, which is the largest parish church in England. It’s been around for a thousand years, for the first five hundred as a monastic abbey, and after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII managed to survive intact when many others were left in ruins. It has seen its fair share of disorder and blood. A group of defeated nobles took refuge there after the Battle of Tewkesbury in the War of the Roses, only to be slaughtered by the opposing side in contravention of the law of sanctuary.
On the wall of the nave is a plaque honouring the dead of Tewkesbury in World War I. Of the hundreds of names inscribed on the monument, there was not a single one that you could identify as foreign. A few Scottish, Welsh and Irish names – but mostly English. It reminded me that a hundred years ago, outside the big cities the population of England was remarkably homogeneous. You would not be able to say that of any conurbation in England today. Is it any wonder that so many people have gathered behind UKIP’s banner?
Yet people do eventually learn to live with the uncomfortable, and I believe that one day we will acknowledge we are the richer for our new blood. The sooner we accept that that was then and this is now, the sooner we start improving now. If you were ask me today how sensible politicians should react to the current tremors of disaffection rattling Europe, I would answer: by preparing for life after the Union.