When I was on the other side of the world, editing the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, the answer to Britain’s great European question seemed straightforward. London should stop beating about the bush and join the euro. The hesitation about getting to the heart of Europe was retrograde Little Englandism. Now, at close range, the simplicities of long-range vision grow hazier by the week, if only because of the way Europe behaves.
Nothing can shake the fact that, after three wars in 75 years, the Continent has enjoyed five decades of peace, with the French and Germans seeing themselves as joint pillars of the region, rather than tribal foes. Nor can we ignore the corrosive effect of years of British handbag-swinging and dog-in-the-mangerism, amplified by media hysteria and xenophobia.
A year after getting back to this country, I would still count myself a paid-up member of the other church, which sees the construction of Europe as a Good Thing, and believes that, off the sports field, the crude pull of nationalism needs to be kept in check. But I find the faith being tested to an uncomfortable degree these days, to the point of inducing agnosticism on the euro. Indeed, all too often, our bishops and sacristans seem to be setting devilish tests of belief as they shell out ammunition for the unbelievers to hurl at the letters column of the Daily Telegraph.
The great synod in Nice last December was enough to make the congregation fall into soulful lamentation, as it watched the keepers of the original creed from either side of the Rhine squabble over voting rights in council meetings. No sooner had we revived our spirits by reading the exhortations of the great scribe on the op-ed page of the Guardian than France and Germany raised their flags at the next conclave to defend that noble cause, national electricity monopolies.
Like the actor who said how much easier his profession would be if he didn’t have to worry about the audience, so the men – and a few women – running Europe act as if they regard the people of the community as a necessary, but undesirable, element. When those people are consulted, they often prove unenthusiastic, as in the Danish and Irish euro referendums. Even in France, it should not be forgotten, the Maastricht Treaty only just scraped through.
No wonder, then, that a German commissioner who mused on whether a popular vote should be held on the enlargement of the European Union to eastern Europe was swiftly slapped down by colleagues. No wonder that Tony Blair is so wary of a referendum. No wonder that the polls show a high level of disillusion with the EU, or that critics find it so easy to take pot shots at the bureaucrats in ivory towers protected by the lack of democratic accountability, reinforced by the pitifully low turnout at European elections.
The trouble with asking the voters what they think is that they may tell you, and their view of their interests may not accord with the mission statements of European affairs ministries or the Commission. Enlargement, for instance, is part of the Holy Grail, but will the Italians sit by and watch aid being switched from the Mezzogiorno to Poland, or the Germans welcome a flood of workers from the east when the country’s unemployment is rising? For three decades, the top-down system bequeathed by French technocrats was seen as the template. All the evidence now is that the people for whom the Union should exist are fed up with a distant apparatus whose priority seems to be self-perpetuation.
Such an impression can only be fortified by the guardians of the treasury in Frankfurt. The devotion of the European Central Bank to the anti-inflationary sacraments is increasingly obscurantist, at a time when European economies need a jump-start. The bank’s dogmatism and secrecy fit ill with the sharp fall of the common currency in its short life.
Even when things were brighter, dreams of Europe taking over from the US as world economic motor overlooked one salient point: unemployment. The German total never fell to Chancellor Schroder’s goal of 3.5 million and, despite the creation of a million jobs since 1997, France’s jobless rate is still 8.8 per cent, just above the EU average. If the single market is here to stay, so, apparently, is unacceptably high unemployment.
Then there is the Common Agricultural Policy. Its encouragement of factory farming is, finally, coming into question. Its maintenance of high prices and barriers to imports from poor countries should be a major target of trade protesters. But, with presidential and legislative elections in France next year, will either the left or right there take the risk of serious reform that would alienate the farm vote? Jose Bove’s anti-globalisation fits in all too neatly with protectionism, which prefers not to speak its name as it bashes McDonald’s.
Faced with such problems, and wanting to keep the show on the road, the pro- European camp should acknowledge what is wrong with the Union, suggest remedies and seek pragmatic alliances. The EU has provided the framework for peaceful progress for hundreds of millions over the past half-century. It can – and should – go on doing so. But first, those in charge of its destiny must stop making it so hard.