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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.