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The bugger, bugged

After a chance meeting with a former News of the World executive who told him his phone had been hacked, Hugh Grant couldn’t resist going back to him – with a hidden tape recorder – to find out if there was more to the story. . .

When I broke down in my midlife crisis car in remotest Kent just before Christmas, a battered white van pulled up on the far carriageway. To help, I thought. But when the driver got out he started taking pictures with a long-lens camera. He came closer to get better shots and I swore at him. Then he offered me a lift the last few miles to my destination. I suspected his motives and swore at him some more. (I'm not entirely sympathetic towards paparazzi.) Then I realised I couldn't get a taxi and was late. So I had to accept the lift.

He turned out to be an ex-News of the World investigative journalist and paparazzo, now running a pub in Dover. He still kept his camera in the car's glove box for just this kind of happy accident.

More than that, he was Paul McMullan, one of two ex-NoW hacks who had blown the whistle (in the Guardian and on Channel 4's Dispatches) on the full extent of phone-hacking at the paper, particularly under its former editor Andy Coulson. This was interesting, as I had been a victim - a fact he confirmed as we drove along. He also had an unusual defence of the practice: that phone-hacking was a price you had to pay for living in a free society. I asked how that worked exactly, but we ran out of time, and next thing we had arrived and he was asking me if I would pose for a photo with him, "not for publication, just for the wall of the pub".

I agreed and the picture duly appeared in the Mail on Sunday that weekend with his creative version of the encounter. He had asked me to drop into his pub some time. So when, some months later, Jemima asked me to write a piece for this paper, it occurred to me it might be interesting to take him up on his invitation.

I wanted to hear more about phone-hacking and the whole business of tabloid journalism. It occurred to me just to interview him straight, as he has, after all, been a whistleblower. But then I thought I might possibly get more, and it might be more fun, if I secretly taped him, The bugger bugged, as it were. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.

Me So, how's the whistleblowing going?
Him I'm trying to get a book published. I sent it off to a publisher who immediately accepted it and then it got legal and they said, "This is never going to get published."
Me Why? Because it accuses too many people of crime?
Him Yes, as I said to the parliamentary commission, Coulson knew all about it and regularly ordered it . . . He [Coulson] rose quickly to the top; he wanted to cover his tracks all the time. So he wouldn't just write a story about a celeb who'd done something. He'd want to make sure they could never sue, so he wanted us to hear the celeb like you on tape saying, "Hello, darling, we had lovely sex last night." So that's on tape - OK, we've got that and so we can publish . . . Historically, the way it went was, in the early days of mobiles, we all had analogue mobiles and that was an absolute joy. You know, you just . . . sat outside Buckingham Palace with a £59 scanner you bought at Argos and get Prince Charles and everything he said.
Me Is that how the Squidgy tapes [of Diana's phone conversations] came out? Which was put down to radio hams, but was in fact . . .
Him Paps in the back of a van, yes . . . I mean, politicians were dropping like flies in the Nineties because it was so easy to get stuff on them. And, obviously, less easy to justify is celebrities. But yes.
Me And . . . it wasn't just the News of the World. It was , you know - the Mail?
Him Oh absolutely, yeah. When I went freelance in 2004 the biggest payers - you'd have thought it would be the NoW, but actually it was the Daily Mail. If I take a good picture, the first person I go to is - such as in your case - the Mail on Sunday. Did you see that story? The picture of you, breaking down . . . I ought to thank you for that. I got £3,000. Whooo!
Me But would they [the Mail] buy a phone-hacked story?
Him For about four or five years they've absolutely been cleaner than clean. And before that they weren't. They were as dirty as anyone . . . They had the most money.
Me So everyone knew? I mean, would Rebekah Wade have known all this stuff was going on?
Him Good question. You're not taping, are you?
Me [slightly shrill voice] No.
Him Well, yeah. Clearly she . . . took over the job of [a journalist] who had a scanner who was trying to sell it to members of his own department. But it wasn't a big crime. [NB: Rebekah Brooks has always denied any knowledge of phone-hacking. The current police investigation is into events that took place after her editorship of the News of the World.]
It started off as fun - you know, it wasn't against the law, so why wouldn't you? And it was only because the MPs who were fiddling their expenses and being generally corrupt kept getting caught so much they changed the law in 2001 to make it illegal to buy and sell a digital scanner. So all we were left with was - you know - finding a blag to get your mobile [records] out of someone at Vodafone. Or, when someone's got it, other people swap things for it.
Me So they all knew? Wade probably knew all about it all?
Him [...] Cameron must have known - that's the bigger scandal. He had to jump into bed with Murdoch as everyone had, starting with Thatcher in the Seventies . . . Tony Blair . . . [tape is hard to hear here] Maggie openly courted Murdoch, saying, you know, "Please support me." So when Cameron, when it came his turn to go to Murdoch via Rebekah Wade . . . Cameron went horse riding regularly with Rebekah. I know, because as well as doorstepping celebrities, I've also doorstepped my ex-boss by hiding in the bushes, waiting for her to come past with Cameron on a horse . . . before the election to show that - you know - Murdoch was backing Cameron.
Me What happened to that story?
Him The Guardian paid for me to do it and I stepped in it and missed them, basically. They'd gone past - not as good as having a picture.
Me Do you think Murdoch knew about phone-hacking?
Him Errr, possibly not. He's a funny bloke given that he owns the Sun and the Screws . . . quite puritanical. Sorry to talk about Divine Brown, but when that came out . . . Murdoch was furious: "What are you putting that on our front page for? You're bringing down the tone of our papers." [Indicating himself] That's what we do over here.
Me Well, it's also because it was his film I was about to come out in.
Him Oh. I see.
Me Yeah. It was a Fox film.
[A pause here while we chat to other customers, and then - ]
Him So anyway, let me finish my story.
Me Murdoch, yes . . .
Him So I was sent to do a feature on Moulin Rouge! at Cannes, which was a great send anyway. Basically my brief was to see who Nicole Kidman was shagging - what she was doing, poking through her bins and get some stuff on her. So Murdoch's paying her five million quid to big up the French and at the same time paying me £5.50 to fuck her up . . . So all hail the master. We're just pawns in his game. How perverse is that?
Me Wow. You reckon he never knew about it?
Him [pause] I don't even think he really worried himself too much about it.
Me What's his son called?
Him James. They're all mates together. They all go horse riding. You've got Jeremy Clarkson lives here [in Oxfordshire]. Cameron lives here, and Rebekah Wade is married to Brooks's son [the former racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks]. Cameron gets dressed up as the Stig to go to Clarkson's 50th birthday party [NB: it was actually to record a video message for the party]. Is that demeaning for a prime minister? It should be the other way round, shouldn't it? So basically, Cameron is very much in debt to Rebekah Wade for helping him not quite win the election . . . So that was my submission to parliament - that Cameron's either a liar or an idiot.
Me But don't you think that all these prime ministers deliberately try to get the police to drag their feet about investigating the whole [phone-hacking] thing because they don't want to upset Murdoch?
Him Yeah. There's that . . . You also work a lot with policemen as well . . . One of the early stories was [and here he names a much-loved TV actress in her sixties] used to be a street walker - whether or not she was, but that's the tip.
Me and Chum MLTVA?!
Me I can't believe it. Oh no!
Chum Really??
Him Yeah. Well, not now . . .
Chum Oh, it'd be so much better if it was now.
Him So I asked a copper to get his hands on the phone files, but because it's only a caution it's not there any more. So that's the tip . . . it's a policeman ringing up a tabloid reporter and asking him for ten grand because this girl had been cautioned right at the start of his career. And then I ask another policemen to go and check the records . . . So that's happening regularly. So the police don't particularly want to investigate.
Me But do you think they're going to have to now?
Him I mean - 20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms? . . . And what's wrong with that, anyway? It doesn't hurt anyone particularly. I mean, it could hurt someone's career - but isn't that the dance with the devil you have to play?
Me Well, I suppose the fact that they're dragging their feet while investigating a mass of phone-hacking - which is a crime - some people would think is a bit depressing about the police.
Him But then - should it be a crime? I mean, scanning never used to be a crime. Why should it be? You're transmitting your thoughts and your voice over the airwaves. How can you not expect someone to just stick up an aerial and listen in?
Me So if someone was on a landline and you had a way of tapping in . . .
Him Much harder to do.
Me But if you could, would you think that was illegal? Do you think that should be illegal?
Him I'd have to say quite possibly, yeah. I'd say that should be illegal.
Me But a mobile phone - a digital phone . . . you'd say it'd be all right to tap that?
Him I'm not sure about that. So we went from a point where anyone could listen in to anything. Like you, me, journalists could listen in to corrupt politicians, and this is why we have a reasonably fair society and a not particularly corrupt or criminal prime minister, whereas other countries have Gaddafi. Do you think it's right the only person with a decent digital scanner these days is the government? Whereas 20 years ago we all had a go? Are you comfortable that the only people who can listen in to you now are - is it MI5 or MI6?
Me I'd rather no one listened in, to be honest. And I might not be alone there. You probably wouldn't want people listening to your conversations.
Him I'm not interesting enough for anyone to want to listen in.
Me Ah . . . I think that was one of the questions asked last week at one of the parliamentary committees. They asked Yates [John Yates, acting deputy commissioner of the Metropolitan Police] if it was true that he thought that the NoW had been hacking the phones of friends and family of those girls who were murdered . . . the Soham murder and the Milly girl [Milly Dowler].
Him Yeah. Yeah. It's more than likely. Yeah . . . It was quite routine. Yeah - friends and family is something that's not as easy to justify as the other things.
Me But celebrities you would justify because they're rich?
Him Yeah. I mean, if you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders.
Me So I should have given up acting?
Him If you live off your image, you can't really complain about someone . . .
Me I live off my acting. Which is different to living off your image.
Him Yeah, but you're still presenting yourself to the public. And if the public didn't know you -
Me They don't give a shit. I got arrested with a hooker and they still came to my films. They don't give a fuck about your public image. They just care about whether you're in an entertaining film or not.
Him That's true . . . I have terrible difficulty with him [points to pap shot of Johnny Depp]. He's really difficult. You know, I was in Venice and he was a nightmare to do because he walks around looking like Michael Jackson. And the punchline was . . . after leading everyone a merry dance the film was shot on an open balcony - I mean, it was like - he was standing there in public.
Me And you don't see the difference between the two situations?
Chum He was actually working at this time? As opposed to having his own private time?
Him You can't hide all the time.
Me So you're saying, if you're Johnny Depp or me, you don't deserve to have a private life?
Him You make so much more money. You know, most people in Dover take home about £200 and struggle.
Me So how much do you think the families of the Milly and Soham girls make?
Him OK, so there are examples that are poor and you can't justify - and that's clearly one of them.
Me I tell you the thing I still don't get - if you think it was all right to do all that stuff, why blow the whistle on it?
Him Errm . . . Right. That's interesting. I actually blew the whistle when a friend of mine at the Guardian kept hassling me for an interview. I said, "Well if you put the name of the Castle [his pub] on the front page of the Guardian, I'll do anything you like." So that's how it started.
Me So, have you been leant on by the NoW, News International, since you blew the whistle?
Him No, they've kept their distance. I mean, there's people who have much better records - my records are non-existent. There are people who actually have tapes and transcripts they did for Andy Coulson.
Me And where are these tapes and transcripts? Do you think they've been destroyed?
Him No, I'm sure they're saving them till they retire.
Me So did you personally ever listen to my voice messages?
Him No, I didn't personally ever listen to your voice messages. I did quite a lot of stories on you, though. You were a very good earner at times.

Those are the highlights. As I drove home past the white cliffs, I thought it was interesting - apart from the fact that Paul hates people like me, and I hate people like him, we got on quite well. And, absurdly, I felt a bit guilty for recording him.

And he does have a very nice pub. The Castle Inn, Dover, for the record. There are rooms available, too. He asked me if I'd like to sample the honeymoon suite some time: "I can guarantee your privacy."

-- Listen to the audio now --

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

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A crisis without end

The disintegration of the European project.

Perhaps the greatest academic growth area over the past twenty years or so has been “European integration studies”, a field that has both analysed and boosted support for the European “project”. Almost all of its practitioners have proceeded from the assumption that the process of integration is – must be – “irreversible”. It is the intellectual equivalent of the principle of the European acquis communautaire by which powers, once surrendered or pooled, cannot be retrieved. Or, more unkindly, one might see it as a “European Brezhnev doctrine”, by which socialism, being inevitable, could not be allowed to fail in any country in which it was already established.

But what if this is not so? What if, as the Croatian political scientist Josip Glaurdic, an expert on the collapse of Yugoslavia, once quipped, what we really need is a school of “European disintegration studies”?

The stark truth is that in the past century or so of European history there have been many more examples of disintegration than integration.

Take the cases of Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. Each was an attempt to create a supranational entity that its proponents (and inhabitants) imagined lasting, if not for ever, then nearly so. But in the end, each of them collapsed. And if these examples provide any guide, the days of the European Union are numbered, unless it can effect fundamental reform.

What caused their collapse? Each case is different, of course, but the common denominator was an intractable crisis that lasted for roughly a decade and for which there was ultimately no solution, except the end of the state and a new beginning.

Austria-Hungary could not contain the burgeoning desire for self-determination among its myriad peoples within a centralised monarchical framework. Efforts initially focused on a revised federal solution giving more power to the various nationalities. But the more power the centre conceded, the more power its peoples demanded. Eventually, the empire endured a flight into war in 1914 as the leadership tried to stamp out the south Slav problem once and for all. Amid the carnage, the Czechs in particular pressed for complete independence, and others did the same. At war’s end, the Allied powers granted them their wish.

In Yugoslavia and the USSR the problem was socialism, which had exhausted itself by the 1980s while continuing to demand excessive burden-sharing among their respective national groups, some of which had a history of conflict.

In the case of the EU, the problem is the ideology of “Europeanism” among the continent’s ruling elites, who transferred power from national capitals to the central European institutions at a faster rate than most electorates were willing to accept. This was tolerated in the good times: most voters did not pay a great deal of attention to what powers their rulers were giving up, as long as life continued to improve.

However, things changed when the EU finally hit a major crisis and the institutions found themselves responsible for matters, such as monetary and migration policy, for which there was no European consensus. Not only has this rendered decision-making very tricky, but the EU has found that it lacks the legitimacy to impose decisions for the sake of the common European good.

Decision-making has become a two-stage process. At first, there is paralysis because the institutions cannot find a solution with which everyone can agree. Then, when crisis turns to emergency, power politics takes over and the stronger states impose self-interested decisions on weaker ones.

This is unsustainable. After many good decades, the EU is failing in its promise to deliver lasting prosperity and stability. Now it is reneging on its commitment to democracy. Unless the EU can find solutions to the problems Europe is facing that are acceptable to its members – and so far we have waited five years for it to end the eurozone crisis – the Union will be on a glide path to collapse.

Can the EU turn its fortunes around?

Perhaps, but recent history does not hold out much hope. Potentially, individual states could be allowed to opt out of the parts of the acquis to which they object, recasting the Union on the basis of “variable geometry”. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union both confronted the same issue and to some extent the constituent republics were allowed to go their own way.

But this autonomy operated within strict limits. The elites were still boxed in by their basic commitment to socialism and burden-sharing, which limited the scope of discussions on how to revive the economy and redistribute power within the Union. Eventually, as living standards tumbled, the richer republics – Slovenia and Croatia in Yugoslavia, and the Baltic states in the Soviet Union – become ever more resistant to sharing their scarce resources. As the economic and political crisis deepened and the ship of state started sinking, they each jumped off for safety.


Similar problems prevail in the EU. Many of the elites are trapped by their belief that Europe cannot repatriate powers to national capitals for fear of opening the proverbial Pandora’s box, containing all the evils in the world. Britain will demand greater control over immigration and welfare, France a curb on the free market and Poland control over environmental policy. By the time member states have each reclaimed the areas of policy they most cherish, there will be no union left and Europe will descend into nationalism and – just possibly – armed conflict.

The alternative is that the eurozone makes a concerted drive towards becoming a single state in order to save the common currency and provide for the common defence. But recent history offers no precedents for a move towards deeper union at the moment when crisis strikes. Instead, separate national interests sharpen. Most eurozone members probably recognise the need for a political union, but they will accept it only if the Union is designed in a way that suits their various specific requirements. One wishes it were otherwise, but experience shows we shouldn’t hold our breath as we wait.

If the EU is facing a crisis for which there is no apparent solution, then what does recent history tell us about the manner of its potential collapse?

One point is that this can happen even if most people do not want it. In Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia and even the Soviet Union, most people were afraid of life on the outside and initially pursued their national goals within the familiar confines of the federal entity. Another is that, when the final collapse does come, it can happen so quickly that almost everyone is caught unawares. Even in 1989, few people foresaw the collapse of Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union, which is one reason why malcontent members pushed their demands so hard.

From start to finish, the process of collapse exposed other common features.

One is an increasing resort to “self-help” solutions. In all these cases, as the crisis deepened and the central institutions became paralysed, power informally shifted from the union to the national level as individual members sought their own, unilateral solutions. In both the USSR and Yugoslavia, the federal republics began to assert control over economic policy, in violation of union law, and refused to “export” essential goods (such as food) or surrender tax revenues that were needed at home.

A second feature is that, as the overarching structure buckled, so the individual parts began to fracture. At the end of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan broke when the Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh rejected the authority of Baku. Similarly, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Adjara broke away from Georgia, Transnistria from Moldova and Chechnya from Russia (although this was recaptured, in Vladimir Putin’s first notable act as president). Meanwhile, as Moscow withdrew from its eastern European hinterland, the bi-ethnic state of Czechoslovakia also collapsed.

In Yugoslavia, the disintegration of the federal structure was mirrored by the dis­integration of the individual republics. When Croatia and Bosnia broke away from the union, so the large Serbian minorities within those republics broke with the emerging independent states in an attempt to remain part of Yugoslavia. In parallel, Kosovo made its first, unsuccessful bid for independence from Serbia.

A third common feature is the increasingly forceful exercise of power by the core state, which had the greatest stake in the survival of the union and primary responsibility for holding it together. Austria launched a military crackdown against secessionism in the Balkans. In the Soviet Union, Moscow deployed the Soviet army to the Baltic states and the Caucasus. And in Yugoslavia, the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic launched the “anti-bureaucratic revolution” in Montenegro, Kosovo and Vojvodina, and ultimately sent the Yugoslav army in to Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia.

Paradoxically, attempts to resist the fragmentation of the union were followed by active attempts to loosen it. This happened at the point when the core state realised it could not hold the union together in its old form and sought to salvage what it could in the new circumstances.


In some cases, this was a gradual process. As early as 1867, the Habsburg empire was transformed into the dual monarchy, giving Hungary almost complete autonomy within a system hitherto dominated by Austria. Yugoslavia also loosened in 1974. The evidence suggests that such moves can buy time for the union, something that may give the UK breathing space in the coming years. The Austro-Hungarian empire survived five decades after its reforms and the devolution of power to the individual republics sustained Yugoslavia for another 16 years.

But moves to loosen the union at a more advanced stage of decay can have the opposite effect. Attempts by Belgrade and Moscow in 1989-90 to reconstitute their unions as loose confederations against a backdrop of crisis and threats of secession proved futile. Such moves were interpreted as a sign of weakness, which only served to galvanise the secessionist forces.

A final feature of all three cases is the pivotal moment when the second major power leaves the union. History suggests that unions can survive the loss of a small member state, such as Ireland from the UK in 1921. Conceivably the Baltic republics could have left the USSR, Slovenia could have bailed out of Yugoslavia, and in the EU context Greece could quit without the whole Union collapsing. When the second state quits, however – Ukraine, in the case of the USSR, and Croatia in Yugoslavia – the loss critically destabilises the balance of power within the union.

At this point, the smaller states are left in a dangerously asymmetrical relationship with the dominant state and must leave to avoid becoming de facto colonies of a single, unrivalled power. With Croatia’s departure, Yugoslavia in effect morphed into Greater Serbia and states such as Bosnia and Macedonia were forced to claim an independence they had not previously sought. Once Ukraine left the Soviet Union, no state would have been able to keep the power of Russia in check.

Yet there is one interesting variation of this pattern, namely “central secession” – that is, when the core state itself quits the union. In the Soviet Union, the final scene in the drama of its collapse was Russia’s declaration of independence in 1990, which Boris Yeltsin led in order to marginalise Mikhail Gorbachev, whose power derived from the Soviet federal institutions. At this point, the Soviet Union in effect ceased to exist and the central Asians and Belarus, the last states standing, became independent by default. In Yugoslavia Milosevic and Serb nationalists first tried to reconstruct the whole federation as a Serb-dominated “Serboslavia”, settling for a “Greater Serbia” when this foundered on the opposition of Slovenia and Croatia, which were practically extruded from the federation. In the Austro-Hungarian context, it was the peri­pheral nationalisms – using the stresses of war – that did for the Habsburgs in the end, but at other times in its history the empire was also under very great pressure from German and Hungarian nationalism.

In other words, during the process of collapse, the core power can pass through stages, in which it first tries to hold the union together by force, then pursues compromise with its secessionist partners, and finally bails out of the union, bringing about the final collapse that it initially tried so hard to avoid.


If this is how unions collapse, what can we infer from it about the future of the EU? One thing we should see is states resorting to unilateral solutions to urgent problems, as the EU institutions prove increasingly ineffective. In fact, this is already happening. Some eastern European states have been quietly opting out of parts of the single market for some years now, insisting instead that companies operating in strategic sectors harmonise their activities with the national government’s political objectives. Anyone who doubts this should try to buy farmland or open a utility company in Hungary. They will be in for a nasty surprise.

In recent weeks, states in central and eastern Europe, including Germany, have also abandoned their treaty obligations on borders and asylum (Schengen) as the burgeoning migrant crisis has rapidly changed their political circumstances.

We will also see member states starting to fragment and, indeed, it is no coincidence that Scotland made a bid for independence at a time of deepening crisis in the EU. Scots (just about) feel their interests are secure in a United Kingdom which is locked in to a larger, supranational structure that exercises control over London. But if Britain were to abandon the EU and fully restore its own independence, Scotland would be both isolated from Europe and subordinate to a dominant English state. If and when the Scots vote to leave, the position of Wales and Northern Ireland in an even more asymmetric union could be untenable.

In Spain, Catalonia is sensing Madrid’s weakness, given its dependence for liquidity on an organisation in a state of existential crisis. Its grievance, that Catalonia pays in far more than its gets out, is nothing new but the opportunity for escape is unprecedented. Belgium is also at risk of breaking apart; so is Italy, with the north seceding and then breaking up into smaller parts such as South Tyrol.

So, too, are the western Balkans, which lie within the Union’s hinterland. Over the past decade, as the United States wound down its security commitment, the EU has played the dominant external role in the region, enforcing the sanctity of borders in the face of resistance from unhappy minority groups such as the Bosnian Serbs and Macedonian Albanians, who would ideally take their territory and go somewhere else. By and large, peace has prevailed until now. But as the EU’s leverage wanes, so fragile states are fracturing. After a grave political crisis this year in Macedonia, the country’s future is hanging in the balance. And with little to fear from a crisis-stricken EU, the Bosnian Serbs have announced plans for a referendum on independence in 2018, a move that would inevitably lead to unification with Serbia.

As the EU comes under ever greater stress, we will see Germany, as the dominant state, asserting its power more forcefully over the rest of the Union in an attempt to hold it together. This almost certainly does not imply a resort to violence – Germany is a very different country in very different circumstances from Russia and Serbia in 1990.

But already, Berlin has trampled on the interests of the southern periphery by demanding a punishing programme of austerity as the price for providing the credit line that holds the eurozone (and, by extension, the European project) together. And this summer, despite vehement protests from the eastern Europeans, Germany has insisted that all EU member states take a quota of the migrants pouring in to Europe and whose presence threatens one of the pillars on which the Union is built – the freedom of movement.

If events follow the established course, this exercise of raw power will be accompanied, after a while, by concessions on loosening union. Already Britain has initiated discussions and other states, such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Poland, may soon line up behind it. The next step is for Germany to calculate that compromise is the way to avoid the early collapse of the Union. Whether these efforts succeed depends on whether the EU is facing its 1867/1974 or 1918/1990 moment.

Assuming it is the latter, then the pivotal moment will come when the second state finally throws in the towel, destabilising the balance of power within the EU. In this respect, the EU is a more complicated entity than Austria-Hungary, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia because it has not one, but two second-tier states, Britain and France. But if one of them left, and Britain is closer to the exit, those states that remain would face the unpalatable prospect of remaining in a German empire writ large, or leaving.

The first to go would probably be Eurosceptic states such as Denmark, Hungary and the Czech Republic. But, with each departure the rump union will become ever more German-centred, with the result that others will be likely to bail out rapidly.

Precedent suggests that Germany, too, could secede. If the EU were to follow the Soviet model, Jean-Claude Juncker or Donald Tusk would play the role of Mikhail Gorbachev, trying to hold the Union together, while a Yeltsin-like figure would emerge within Germany, making a bid for independence in order to sideline the EU. More likely, however, the EU would follow the Yugoslav model and, like Serbia, Germany would be the last man standing after everyone else has left or has been forced out for one reason or another. The one exception to this could be Austria, which clings to Germany as Belarus once did to Russia and Montenegro to Serbia.


As of 2015, the EU is not at the point of no return as Austria-Hungary was by 1918 and the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia were by 1990. There is still a chance of turning things around. Another flare-up in the euro crisis could lead to either the full political union it requires to function or an orderly dismantling of the common currency. But this is where historical forces give ground to more contingent factors. And the wild card here is elections.

In both the USSR and Yugoslavia, a round of relatively free elections in 1990 (the first in their history) gave rise to nationalist parties across the two unions, with explicitly rejectionist agendas. In Yugoslavia, the Croatian Democratic Union led by Franjo Tudjman successively severed all remaining ties with Belgrade and eventually organised a referendum on independence. In Slovenia, DEMOS – the Democratic Opposition of Slovenia – took the same path.

Meanwhile, in the USSR, elections to the regional soviets brought to power overtly nationalist governments in the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Moldova whose primary goal was to deliver independence.

We are still awaiting the moment when radical Eurosceptic parties take power in Europe with an explicitly rejectionist agenda. Britain’s Conservatives hardly fit this description, because they are politically mainstream, and the UK is a special case whose status could be renegotiated. Elsewhere, however, radical parties such as the Front National in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands and the Sweden Democrats are (or have been) leading in opinion polls across the continent. It is perhaps only a matter of time before one of them gets into government.

So here is what could happen, in what is an apocalyptic but perfectly plausible sequence of events.

In 2016 or early 2017, Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom wins the Dutch parliamentary elections and leads an overtly rejectionist coalition. Sensing the threat, Germany unilaterally “grants” Britain a new deal on membership, including curbs on benefits for EU immigrants, which, in the final analysis, do not matter that much to Berlin. There is no broader discussion about this around the EU, and France, which opposes concessions for Britain, is marginalised. Britain votes to stay in (just, thanks to the Celtic vote) on the basis of the new deal. But matters do not end there.

In an increasingly radicalised atmosphere, caused mainly by the refugee crisis, Marine Le Pen wins the French presidential election in April 2017 and demands a comparable package of concessions, this time on things that really do matter to Germany, such as French membership of the eurozone, plus much tougher restrictions on immigration – all on pain of secession.

Fearing a domino effect around the EU, Germany refuses. This triggers France’s exit, which critically destabilises the rest of the EU. The Netherlands is the next to go. Within weeks, most other states announce their departure, including Britain, which never got to implement its new deal, and by 2018 the EU is all but dead. For the UK the only silver lining is that Scotland remains in, partly because the option of “independence” within the EU has disappeared, and partly in order to seek shelter amid the fallout from the collapse of the European project. With the passing of the EU, the UK remains the only modern example in history of a successful, multinational parliamentary union.

This is an extreme scenario in some ways, but very optimistic in others, not least because it does not presume war. Nor does it presume that any of the other crises facing the Union will turn into an emergency for Europe, be it Russian adventurism on the EU’s eastern flank, conflict in the Middle East, international or domestic terrorist attacks or a sudden collapse of the common currency, all or some of which are more likely than not to happen, and all of which require a functioning EU in order to master.

The collapse of the EU would, however, be hard to contain and the shock would be felt around the world. The next few years may be the time when everything goes wrong – not just in Europe but everywhere, ultimately, because of it.

If so, we will have cause to remember the words of Count Ottokar Czernin, Austria-Hungary’s foreign minister for most of the First World War: “We were bound to die. We were at liberty to choose the manner of our death and we chose the most terrible.”

Brendan Simms is the director of the Forum on Geopolitics at the University of Cambridge

Timothy Less is the director of the political risk consultancy Nova Europa and a former British diplomat

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The end of Europe