The EU isn't too big to fail, but it is too important to

Contrary to Nigel Lawson, the EU is not a monstrous bureaucracy, but the policy mix of austerity and reform is failing.

I spoke at the Annual European University Institute "State of the Union" conference yesterday. It takes place in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, adorned with 500 year old frescoes commemorating the first Florentine Republic after the expulsion of the Medicis – a good reminder that the process of European integration has deep roots.

There was a lot of realism – about the continuing challenge of the euro crisis, about the long-term nature of structural reform, about the gulf between too many citizens and European governance. But there was also a deep determination to preserve the gains of the past – for example in President Barroso’s speech – and wherever I went, a desire to see Britain as part of the European future. In my contribution, in the session on governance and institutions, I made five points.

First, that the debate about legitimacy and efficiency/delivery is happening all over the world. The Chinese are thinking about it; the Americans are debating it in the discussion of 'gridlock'; it is part of the debate in the Arab world as governments elected after the revolutions of 2011 are faced with real economic and social choice. In Europe, legitimacy has two elements – the 'one nation one vote' principle embodied in the European Council, and the 'one person one vote' principle in the European Parliament. The danger for the EU – as elsewhere – is whether legitimacy AND efficiency is missing.

Second, the protest politics in Britain, Italy and elsewhere, is not just (or primarily) about frustration with the EU; it speaks fundamentally to frustration with the traditional politics of centre-right and centre-left, and the desire for a new political alternative. For me, that is about rejuvenating social democracy, but there is no point in hiding that a traditional social democratic offer of social justice through state redistribution is not going to work or sell.

Third, the EU’s biggest problem is its delivery deficit, not its democratic deficit. This is not a new tune of mine, but while some of the EU’s work is very good indeed – I have just spent two days in Brussels preparing for my International Rescue Committee role and learning about some outstanding European development work in crisis-hit places – the policy mix in response to the economic crisis is still some way from bringing closer the light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t buy the Nigel Lawson argument that the EU is a monstrous and marauding bureaucracy, but the policy mix of austerity and reform is out of kilter with the economic needs in a balance sheet recession.

Fourth, there is a pressing and outstanding agenda for Europe’s soon to be 28 members, beyond the euro crisis. I won’t rehearse again what this covers, but the sense that there is traction on youth unemployment and migration is encouraging.

Finally, the twin narratives of Europe’s development so far – peace on the continent, and reunification after the fall of the Berlin Wall - need to be supplemented by a clarion call that Europe’s purpose is to help its citizens achieve prosperity and security in a 21st century marked by shifts in global power. This cannot be done at national level alone, nor by ad-hoc alliances around the globe to take forward trade promotion or security cooperation.

I don’t buy the argument that Europe is 'too big to fail'. But I do buy the case that it is too important to fail.

David Miliband is the incoming President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee

This piece originally appeared on his blog

The EU flag flies in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Photograph: Getty Images.

David Miliband is the  President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee
He was foreign secretary from 2007 until 2010 and MP for South Shields from 2001 until this year. 

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle