May’s European Parliament elections did nothing to prompt a response to the EU’s “democratic deficit”. Photo: Getty
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I was a teenage Europhile – but the EU’s sadistic austerity and lack of democracy changed my mind

Fast-forward 15-odd years and my wild-eyed teenage Europhilia is a source of much embarrassment.

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“Any chance of a retweet?” the Conservative MEP and ardent Eurosceptic Daniel Hannan asked me on Twitter a few days ago. He was highlighting a video that singles out British politicians and business leaders who called for the UK to join the euro back in the late 1990s. The video is entitled, rather provocatively, Wrong Then, Wrong Now.

I politely declined Hannan’s request, sheepishly confessing to him that . . . er . . . I happened to be one of those people who were “wrong then”. In my defence, I was a mere undergraduate, rather than a Peter Mandelson or a Richard Branson, but I did nevertheless agitate for British membership of the single currency in countless articles, essays and public debates.

Fast-forward 15-odd years and my wild-eyed teenage Europhilia is a source of much embarrassment. Today, Europe is only marginally more popular with the public than ebola; hard-right parties are sweeping to victory in European elections in the UK, France and Denmark; and the eurozone has only narrowly dodged a triple-dip recession. With all this going on, it’s pretty difficult to mount a credible defence of the single currency or, for that matter, the EU itself.

Let’s start with the euro. What on earth were we thinking? How could anyone with the faintest grasp of economics have believed it was anything other than sheer insanity to yoke together diverse national economies such as Greece, Ireland, Germany and Finland under a single exchange rate and a single interest rate? And, lest we forget, without a US-style system of fiscal transfers or culture of labour mobility to compensate?

There were dissenting voices. Big-name US economists, from the Princeton University liberal Paul Krugman to the Harvard conservative Martin Feldstein, warned that the euro would be an “invitation to disaster” and an “economic liability”. An internal EU report later summed up the view of US economists on the euro project as: “It can’t happen, it’s a bad idea, it won’t last.”

Then there’s the fiscal self-flagellation of recent years, unnecessarily “inflicted in the service of a man-made artifice, the euro”, to quote another US economist, the Nobel Prizewinner Joseph Stiglitz. Has there ever been a better advert for the failure of austerity? Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, in particular, have been brutalised by the fiscally sadistic policies demanded by the “troika” of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission – and backed by the dead-eyed deficit hawks in Germany. In Greece, malaria returned for the first time in 40 years; in Spain, students in Catalonia had their toilet paper rationed; in Portugal, soup kitchens proliferated; in Ireland, suicides among men rose sharply. While the eurozone continues its orgy of self-harm, the broader EU is in the midst of an unprecedented and existential political crisis: a crisis of democracy, accountability and legitimacy, with citizens feeling ever less connected to the decision-makers in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Did May’s European Parliament election results – described as a political “earthquake” by the French prime minister, Manuel Valls – convince the continent’s leaders, both elected and unelected, to take a step back and try to tackle the EU’s “democratic deficit”? If only. Despite turnout declining in every single set of European parliamentary elections since they were first introduced in 1979 – and despite the European Commission’s polling suggesting that trust in EU institutions, at 31 per cent, is at an all-time low – members of the EU elite march on towards “ever closer union”, incompetently, indifferently, in denial.

Consider Viviane Reding, the former EC vice-president. In a recent interview with me for my al-Jazeera show Head to Head, she urged her former colleagues on the (unelected) EU commission to behave “like [an] army” and a “government” moving forward at “full speed”. “You cannot have 28 [member states] doing whatever they want,” Reding told me.

It’s as if the European elections never happened. As Bertolt Brecht once put it, “Would it not be easier . . . for the government to dissolve the people and elect another?” Or as the new EC president, Jean-Claude Juncker, pompously proclaimed, in reference to the 2005 French referendum on the EU constitution: “If it’s a Yes, we will say, ‘On we go,’ and if it’s a No, we will say, ‘We continue.’”

That isn’t a description of democracy that I recognise. To talk of a “democratic deficit” at the heart of the EU project would be a gross understatement. If the EU were a nation state and tried to join the EU, it would probably be rejected for not being democratic enough.

So, where have all of its progressive critics gone? The left across Europe has been seduced by the EU’s promise of workers’ rights – forgetting that you can’t enjoy those rights if you don’t have a job to begin with. Mass unemployment is now a fact of life across swaths of the EU and, especially, the eurozone. More than half of young people are jobless in both Greece and Spain, yet unelected Eurocrats still want more growth-choking austerity.

This is a political and economic scandal, not to mention a human tragedy. And progressives should be saying so. But the left in the UK has ceded all the Eurosceptic terrain to the xenophobes and the “Little Englanders”, to Ukip and the Tory right. We were wrong then. Let’s not be wrong now.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer at the NS and the political director of Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted. His “Head to Head” with Viviane Reding will be broadcast on al-Jazeera English on 28 November

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The deep roots of Isis

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.