Lost in Euroland

Separate Ways: Britain and Europe

Peter Shore <em>Duckworth, 224pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0715629727

We don't know where we are on Europe. This is not just a gloomy British reflection; it is union-wide. There have been times when Europe's postwar drive forward was so energetic and so full of achievement that the momentum created the illusion that more or less everyone knew what was going on. That illusion is no longer sustainable.

The Nice summit of last December showed a large rift developing between France and Germany, although the longer-term effect of this is hugely uncertain. In particular, it is very hard to judge if the Franco-German alliance, which has been at the heart of the union project since its inception, will continue. This alliance has been written off many times. However, in the course of the 1990s, during much of which the union was dominated by its most effective (French) president in Jacques Delors, the alliance managed to hook the very large majority of members into a common currency, the euro. Weak at first, the currency is at present appreciating against the dollar (and the pound) and has provided the basis for a European economic renaissance which might be so strong that - in the opinion of the US commentator William Pfaff - it could insulate Europe against even a hard landing for the US economy.

We cannot, therefore, be sure that the real tensions between France and Germany will destroy or even seriously damage a project that has been taken to the heart of the national interests of both. And this confusion is compounded by the "vision statements" of the past year, of which the major texts are reproduced in The Future Shape of Europe.

These include, crucially, a boldly federal statement from Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister (speaking, rather bizarrely, in a personal capacity). Responses range from a wholly supportive ("but don't forget Britain") speech by the Italian premier, Giuliano Amato, to an essay sharply dismissive of a "United States of Europe" by the Swedish foreign minister, Anna Lindh.

The Foreign Policy Centre has done a service in presenting these arguments - most of all, to lighten the darkness in which the overwhelming mass of the British media leave us on Continental European debate. But it is hard to maintain, as the centre's director, Mark Leonard, does in a preface, that they show federalism to be dead. Fischer deliberately gave it new life. To be sure, Hubert Vedrine, in a letter to Fischer setting out the French government's (if not the French president's) position, objects that his German counterpart's vision would cause an "unbearable" overlap between local, regional, national and European institutions, and that, "unlike in the US, there are nations in Europe". But he commits himself to a "federation of nation states", which has the satisfaction of sounding looser while seeming loyal to the founders' vision.

The British response was set out in a speech by Tony Blair in Warsaw in October. In it, Blair used the slogan "a superpower, but not a superstate", to express his support for increased coherence and competence in defence and foreign affairs - while arguing, like Lindh, that to "subsume nations into a politics dominated by supranational institutions . . . fails the test of the people". This has been Britain's strongest European suit since new Labour came to power: an argument, presented as a loyal rather than a wrecking proposal, that a state called Europe is limited by the indifference its putative citizens feel towards it. Where Fischer sees this as a challenge that must be overcome, Blair sees it as a state of affairs unlikely to change and which thus points to the longevity of the nation state and the need for European institutions to be dominated by national leaders and national parliamentarians.

This is a better position than that of the Conservatives (admittedly, a low benchmark). But it is also a source of confusion. Fischer at least faces the consequences of the need for better coherence and competence in foreign and defence policy, and from the democratic demands of a single currency. If Europe is to have a coherent voice in the world and is to send soldiers into war, it must wield more authority than it has now. To pretend that it can do the one without having the other is an illusion.

A superpower (meaning the US) projects its power from the bedrock of a domestic consensus that has proved it can be mobi- lised in support of the export of values felt to be quintessentially American - democracy, the rule of law, market relations. European leaders would agree on the values, but are unable to mobilise action on them - the more so since their foreign policies are jealously guarded and, indeed, are the object of mutual intelligence penetration, and since their defence forces are both underfunded and not equipped for serious and long-term interventions. The integrationist, federalist approach takes seriously both the "democratic deficit" and the "competence deficit". Without a solution to these issues, Europe cannot become a superpower for either good or ill, and will live for ever in what Amato, quoting the Italian federalist Altiero Spinelli, calls "the tension between the radical view of the federalist and the pragmatic approach of the statesman".

This tension creates others, especially in Britain and the Scandinavian states, which have long parliamentary traditions. In Britain's case, too, because of its quite separate experience of two world wars, the moral case for Europe is much less vivid, and the enfolding of its rhetoric and imperatives into the national political discourse quite shallow. Thus Britain's engagement with Europe since the Sixties has always required a display of hypocrisy - presenting it as an economic club, while representing its federalist ambitions as so much froth. Margaret Thatcher, who had some success in making its economics more liberal, was then confronted with the force of its political project as expressed by Delors (whom she came to hate), and recoiled in horror. Some, however, had always felt horror. The most distinguished of these on the Labour side is Peter Shore.

His book is a life's statement - fluent, engaged and internally coherent. It well exposes the hypocrisy of the British position, but it exaggerates the case on new Labour (Shore is militantly old Labour) by calling it lying, where I believe it is better described as necessarily evasive. He sees Britain as Churchill did after the war - at the junction of the three worlds of Europe, the British Commonwealth and the English-speaking world, and whose interests are best preserved by living in all three, opting for none. He believes that accession to Europe was promoted by a "defeatist" political and mandarin class, demoralised by bad economic performance and the Suez debacle of 1956. He thinks that Labour, since the Eighties, and especially since new Labour assumed office, has genuflected needlessly but consistently to the Fat Global Controllers and to an ideology of "central bankism", which is the worse for being presented as simple common sense.

Adapting Orwell, he thinks the British ruling class takes its cooking from Paris, its holidays in Tuscany and its opinions from Brussels. Shore seems unconcerned that most of his support comes from the right; he is secure in his view - which was once that of the majority in the Labour Party - that Britain could be a democratic socialist bastion of independence, from global capitalism and from European unionism alike, if only its ruling class were brave.

There are, briefly, three problems with this case. First, it assumes that the other European governments, including the remainder of the European parties of the left, together with the applicant countries, are idiots. Second, it ignores the truth that instead of stagnation and rising unemployment, which Shore forecast would happen after the adoption of the euro, there has been a rapid fall in unemployment rates (although they are still high) and a surge in growth. Third, it puts all effective trust in the ability of the US to safeguard our interests, while we have no say whatever in US leadership and policies.

The confusion on Europe is deep, but it is open and manageable. At some point - and that point seems closer - real decisions must be made on what will be its stable state. Britain has at last a government which is in the game. That means it can be part of a process of ensuring the game is not a zero-sum one, as it has been for centuries.

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