The Ukip/Tory rhetoric on EU immigration strikes at the very values that make us quintessentially European. This is the title of a vigorous article penned by Will Hutton in the Observer of October 26 2014. The article is well worth reading, fluent, vigorous and partisan. Here it is.
I replied to it in a piece which I was told would appear in The Observer. It did not. It is below under “my remarks”.
Let me start out by saying where I agree with Will: Europe is a small continent, where ethnic groups with ancient grievances abound, hardly a sound foundation for amity; better to have an arrangement to sort out differences in a constructive way, rather than go to war as in 1914; there is a common culture which shapes us, Greece, Rome, Christianity, I would add the religious wars, followed by various brands of Enlightenment, rather than Will’s “Enlightenment, with its commitment to rationality, rule of law and democracy”; the history of these islands is intimately woven into that of the continent; our imperial history is bound into our constitutional evolution, particularly the Bill of Rights of 1689, which predated the American and French revolutions by a hundred years.
I would also agree with Will that the arena in which Europe’s differences are fought over, brokered and reconciled is “Brussels”, and that this is the prime argument, I would add, for remaining in. I would also agree with him that the EU of 28 has as a minimal ambition the reconciliation of differences between nations, and at most the achievement of a common space “whose multinational governance can be consistent with national sovereignty.” A patchwork of bilateral relations and agreements across a host of areas, such as banking or energy, is difficult to conceive.
On the EU’s other achievements beneficial to the UK, I would agree about the importance of the continent to the revived UK auto industry; large farms in the UK have benefitted; and fledgling start ups go international almost instantaneously. But I would add that much more significant for the longer run are the networks of research and student exchange that overtime may be expected to created strong personal and creative bonds.
When he gets to the single currency, I disagree. It has been a major, and not alleged, cause of secular stagnation; is directly related to the rise of anti EU sentiment; its alternative would not have been wildly fluctuating exchange rates, but negotiated parity changes; and the incentives provided by the single currency fed the boom which led to the continental banking bust. I would add that the papering over of fundamental policy differences indeed provides a breathing space, but little else. This has been acknowledged in Britain.
On immigration, Will misses the point completely. Like many pro Europeans, Will dwells on UKIP’s electorally successful strategy of emphasising “the malign impact of EU immigration, robbing native-born British people of jobs and lowering wages.” It is true that in the 1960s, boarding houses used to sport signs, “No Irish, Blacks or dogs”, but that racism is far behind us, and is not what has given UKIP is opportunity.
What has given UKIP its opportunity is to hit on a subject which has worried people for well over a decade, but that successive governments have not responded to. They could and cannot because the interpretation they have of the EU is that the supremacy of EU law is intangible. The UK, successive governments have said, does not have it own policy on immigration.
Farage has hit on a formula that illustrates as clear as a bell that the UK is not self governed. It is that which gives him his appeal.
Will ends on a panegyric to the EU, which for “all its frailties and imperfections, is an important and noble endeavour” standing for “the best of our civilisation and its Enlightenment values”. He spells Enlightenment with a big E.
So let me start on the late eighteenth century. The Enlightenment was many things, and reason was not one of them. Reason, with a capital R was. The Enlightenment Will refers to is that of Rousseau and Paine. My Enlightenment heroes would be Wesley and Burke, who pointed out that grand theories are not the same as complex realities. And that if a grand theory is imposed on a complex reality, complex reality tends to express itself sooner, rather than later. He wrote Reflections on The French Revolution in 1790, and predicted the emergence of a military dictator, “some popular general, who understands the art of conciliating the soldiery, and who possesses the true spirit of commend”. In 1799, Napoleon staged his coup d’état.
The complex reality of Europe is that it is a congery of peoples and states, with a shared common culture, but with different traditions, folk memories, political cultures, tax systems and not least states. The bedrock of Europe is the diversity of states.
In essence, there are two views of Europe: one is that it is as it is, and policy should be shaped to that reality; the other is that what is is not desirable, and ought to be something else. Conflating these two ideas of Europe, as Will Hutton does, compounds the confusion, rather than understanding.
First, of all, lets dismiss a few straw men. The UK is an island and its history has always been apart. The most rudimentary knowledge of our history will indicate what a foolish statement that is. No need to dwell on that.
Secondly, that the Europe we have has it faults, but its the best we have, and lets live with it. It has its little problems, such as the Euro, mass unemployment, the withering of democracy and constitutional government, the rise of populists and other ailments. But the key question is: how much has the EU contributed. I would say that, through sundry highways and byways, it has been the prime vehicle.
Third, Euroskepticism is an ailment, and should be contrasted to true believers. Philip Stephens is a true believer; Will Hutton used to be skeptical, especially about the Euro. Skepticism lies at the heart of a liberal view about politics. Without it, we go around asking what people “believe”, and gasp if they question.
To understand Europe as it is, skepticism is vital. But that is not what Brussels asks. Its denizens say there is only one way. and that is the EU’s commitment to ever closer union. In effect that means the accumulation of power, and with it unpopularity.
Popularity is of course not what the EU has, but it courts it. It has to because that is the world we live in. But it does not do consent. It does leadership. In a meeting in Melun, near to Fontainebleau where I lived for nearly forty years( and taught Will Hutton), I remember a meeting attended by the regional prefect, a post of Napoleonic creation. I said that if the EU was to be successful, it had to reinforce national parliaments in order to elicit the consent of the peoples of Europe. The prefect pounced on this reflection, and stated that the two most powerful parliaments in the EU were the British and the Danish, and they always brought up the rearguard. The avant guard should plough ahead in pursuit of the project.
In invoking parliament, I was of course way behind my times. Let me explain.
When the UK joined the EEC, the project was in effect moribund. The EEC of 1972 was a protectionist organisation with quite a steep external tariff and subsidised farm exports. France was running out of leverage over Germany to pay for its farm exports, so turned to the UK, whose government was in a dither about managing a medium sized economy well. Up to the Accession Treaty its constitution, unwritten, was an elaboration on the Bill of Rights of 1689. The Bill of Rights was one of the foundation stones, along with Magna Carter, of the United States, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa. In 1972, the authors of the UK’s accession signed away the 1689 legacy, and accepted in Article 2 that EEC law would overrule UK law.
Why this was radical has never been properly written up. The UK advocates of accession were super liberal supra nationalists. They wanted supranational law to override national law, in order to prevent war, and make large internal markets. Parliaments were mere talk shops. Modernity was about efficiency.
Nor has it been adequately pointed out that the Heath government, and the UK EEC lobby, were more supra nationalist than anyone else in the EEC, definitely at the time. Germany and Italy paid lip service to federal aims. But their behaviour was distinctly national. The Netherlands was no different. France of Pompidou was run by Gaullists, to whom supranationalism was anathema: supranationalism, they argued was the not so covert language of German ambition-an idea that current observers of the European scene will becoming more familiar with as Mme Le Pen edges towards the Presidency.
So why did the UK side with Germany, and the federalist camp? Because the UK leadership wanted in, believed rather than spoke the patter about nationalism as the source of war, and had a complete vision of the EU as a substitute for empire. Hence the argument of “influence”, and of the importance of sitting at high tables.
Where does that lead us to the present? Simply, the EU is not amenable to supranationalism and the UK supra nationalists abysmally failed to sell their vision to their own public. The UK public clove to the inherited view of this country as subject to none, with the power to make its own policies, and elected representatives in our ancient parliament as answerable to the electorate.
Major EU figures, such as Barroso, try to defend their flat earth view of Europe. They say that the Euro “is” Europe: its failure would be a disaster. Underpinning the Euro are the four freedoms, the ECJ, the EU institutions and all the paraphernalia.
Farage attacks the flat earthers, not so much those in Brussels, who are now his objective allies, as the Marxists say. He attacks those in London, who have no popular backing in the UK, and have an unrealisable vision of the EU as a prescription for Europe.
A truly European position is one that states that Europe is a mosaic of interdependent peoples and states, with one underlying common culture of Christianity, Rome and Greece, but with a great diversity of traditions, memories, languages, literatures, tax and financial systems.Their individuals can marry, do business together, be friendly one with another. But their countries cannot marry. They cannot move to the “ever closer union” which our supra nationalists, here and in Brussels, seek.
This is the rich vein which Farage has struck. Barroso claims the project is a success: but any child can see that this is a fabrication. By casting different countries into a Euro straitjacket, the leaders of Europe, encouraged by the UK supra nationalists who wanted part of the action, have created an economic meltdown on the continent, with very serious longer term political consequences. They cannot plead success in their favour.
What they can do, by their tunnel vision of what Europe is, is play into the hands of the continents populists, whom they despise but encourage by their folly.
If Barroso and his like were savvy, he would be laid back about a mosaic of different states and peoples finding their own ways around present difficulties, by accepting the obvious point that such a diverse collection of members need to bob and weave to manage their complex interdependence with each other and the rest of the world.
Bobbing and weaving could involve the creation of a large EU federal budget to recycle funds to countries undergoing major adjustments; it could involve the collective underwriting by all EU states of Euro denominated bonds; it would entail the break up of the Euro into two or three currency areas. But Germany in the shape of Chancellor Merkel has said Nein on the first two, and others join her in sticking to the Euro as it is.
The same rigidity goes for the free movement of peoples. By saying that the freedom of movement of people is an unbudgeable pillar of the EU, Barroso is helping to radicalise Europe. The same can be said of our supra nationalists here in the UK.
What can be said of them all is that they know nothing, and have learnt nothing about Europe. They are the Bourbons of modern times. To live peacefully together and cooperate closely, Europe has to strengthen, not weaken the democratic and constitutional underpinnings of every one of its member states and beyond.
It is doing the opposite. In drawing our attention to this grave failing. Farage is doing us a favour. But he is a paper tiger because the Europe he is attacking, the EU, is a paper tiger. It is the real Europe that every person in this country should be concerned about. And it is not in good shape.
Will Hutton conflates the two: the EU and the real Europe. He confuses, and does not enlighten.