Monday, 6 June 2016

The Evolving European Union (3)

Did the UK spoil the European Project?
I think the fact that the European Union is under strain, and its fabric creaking alarmingly is, at least in part, the fault of Great Britain.
A club was set up with the clearly formed, but partly hidden, objective of making cooperation pay (in monetary terms) to such an extent that the key states in Europe would voluntarily integrate their economies and war would become unthinkable.
For some reason** we (the UK) opted to stay out but, after a decade, began to envy the economic advantages of membership; and after a further decade we joined the club, in 1973. But we did so with reservations, with our fingers crossed, so-to-speak. A sizable section of the UK thought it possible to have the economic advantages without the integration. Meanwhile the core (and founding) members of the club continued with their original and by now perfectly explicit intention of integration.
Since the UK joined the European Union, there has been steady progress in two somewhat conflicting directions — widening, and deepening. I believe Britain was as keen as any country to enlarge the Union with the inclusion of the Mediterranean countries, and the countries of Eastern Europe freed from the Soviet Union following the removal of the Berlin wall in 1990. Enlargement would increase the size of the 'Single Market', and at the same time secure the democratization of these once-Soviet countries. Meanwhile the deepeners proceeded with their project by abolishing passport controls (1995) over the 26 countries of the Schengen Area, and introducing a single common currency for the 19 countries of the Euro Group (1999/1/1). The UK opted out of both those deepening steps. But even for the 2 EU countries that have opted out of the Schengen area (UK and Eire) there is no way we can exclude the entry of EU passport holders.
Now, in June 2016, we have some vociferous voices in Britain wishing that we had not opened our border so generously to mass immigration of Eastern Europeans. It is ironic, is it not? We thought we could have their labour and their markets without having to share our social services and welfare-state. (And I suppose we could, had we sufficiently anticipated.) Likewise, there are skeptics who claim there is a logical fallacy in having countries like Germany and Greece sharing a common currency; dour, mercantilist, credit-countries and sunny debtor-countries. German and French banks were happy to receive regular interest payments from Greece and Portugal, but were not prepared to shoulder their bad debts. Is it not ironic, and reprehensible, that this failure to pay was not foreseen by the lenders? I, and others, think it is perfectly possible for rich and poor countries to share a currency, with iron discipline (see Ecuador and the USA); but Martin West and other argue convincingly that it is indeed impossible to manage a currency that suits both Greece and Germany equally.
 What happens if we vote to leave? Do we lick our wounds, see how many countries choose to leave with us, then establish an alternative union more to our liking?
What happens if we stay? Do we start attending more creatively to the debates that shape the Union, rectify knows weaknesses, and learn to live with our neighbours?
I can face either possibility, but I would grieve if our exit led to the collapse of the whole European project, grieve for the immense and high-minded effort that has gone into creating a unique Union of cooperating states, over these last 65 years.
(** Perhaps a smug conceit that we had little to learn and, with our Commonwealth, little to gain,)

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