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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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