May’s European Parliament elections did nothing to prompt a response to the EU’s “democratic deficit”. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

This is a free preview of this week’s New Statesman, out today. Get your copy now.

“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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR