What Kind of European and British Union is Emerging?
The Scotsman, May 18th 2013
Prague Spring. Two words which evoke a certain feeling, the hopes of a generation, European idealism and the past.
Today Europe could not be in a more different place and frame of mind, the brief optimism of 1968 and 1989 long gone.
All across the continent, European political, elite and civic conversations are underway about ‘whither Europe?’ and ‘what future for the eurozone?’
In the last two weeks I have participated in two of these, attending the Prague Press Forum and before that speaking to ministers, officials and advisers of the Irish Government in Dublin.
Europe is worried about itself, its future, the European project and Britain – with in many places Euro-realism falling over into a deep-seated pessimism. German broadcaster, Jurgen Kronig, believes part of the problem is the ambiguous nature of German leadership.
Germany he argues is an ‘unwilling hegemon’, a ‘late nation’ which wasn’t fully formed until 1871 and which has never fully adapted in its post-war expression to doing great diplomacy, foreign policy and the subtleties of geo-political positioning. Kronig believes that Henry Kissinger got it right when he said, ‘Germany is too big for Europe, and too small for the world’.
There is still amongst some the influence of Euro idealism, of the attraction of a Europe without barriers. This was the view of Austrian broadcaster Cornelia Vospernik who stated that ‘Europe should not just be a supermarket’ based on consumer goods and picking what you want: long the British vision.
Yet this came back to the hard realities of what kind of integration is attainable and the impossibility of a common defence and foreign policy. What would happen to the UN Security Council seats of the UK and France? Who would get their hands on the nuclear deterrents of these countries? Is it really possible to imagine some kind of Euro nuke?
Karel Schwarzenberg, Czech Foreign Minister and one of the giants of Czech post-Communist politics told us that it would be a ‘gigantic catastrophe’ if the UK left the EU and that ‘Europe will not be Europe without Britain’.
There is a commonplace British conceit that only the UK debates these issues or worries about the European ‘democratic deficit’. Instead, all across the continent, politicians and experts recognise the absence of a European demos, identity and politics, and that the European project has been artificially created by elites.
While the eurozone crisis captures headlines, people ignore what Hungary says about our democracies and Europe. The current Hungarian Government has passed a draconian constitution in just over a month with little to no consultation curbing human rights. As one Hungarian observed, there has arisen due to the experience of free market capitalism, ‘a romance for the last 20 years of Hungarian Communism’ and the idea of ‘the good dictator’.
What has the EU done in response to this attack on human rights in Hungary? It has written a report and done nothing, when what should being discussed is suspending Hungary from the EU. The EU club is one with criterion for getting in, but once in you can do what you like.
Dublin officials and advisers, as illustrated by former Irish Taoiseach John Bruton, are unfazed by the idea of Scottish independence. What worries them is where the UK is heading and its implications for them. They identify three Irish approaches: distancing themselves from the UK, move with the UK to exit or near-exit, or ‘the third way’ of attempting to explain the UK’s concerns to European audiences and act as a bridge builder. Like many across the world, they feel a little bemused by the current turn of British Eurosceptism.
There is a continental pessimism about Britain and the European project. Most European elite conversations involve trying to balance the desire and perceived need for greater integration, particularly in the incomplete eurozone project, federalism and different degrees of union (or ‘renationalisation’ as its called in Euro speak).
British sensibilities are in a very different place. British journalist John Lloyd noted that European conversations were filled by ‘a cosmopolitan elite which was at best 3% of the population’. The majority of Europe was better reflected in the anxieties of ‘Mrs. Duffy who collared Gordon Brown at the last UK election’. That does seem a ridiculously stark view: Eurocrats versus worried women from Rochdale with nothing inbetween!
Lloyd launched a defence of the UK against Scottish independence based on five points: techy comradeship, natural mixing, pooling of resources, economic security, and being a sort of significant world power. Martin Woollacott of ‘The Guardian’ asked if both the Czechs and Slovaks voted on their ‘divorce’, why shouldn’t the English vote on Scottish independence.
The British contributions to Prague were imbued with a conservative pessimism from the most liberal voices: Britain and Europe haven’t turned out the way they wanted. Lloyd at one point in a supposedly critical remark on Scottish independence railed against its ‘small nation coziness’. Isn’t that a positive virtue versus the preposterous, grandiose over-reach and hyperbole of the Great British power project?
Scotland, the UK and Europe involve two marriages and relationships which if they aren’t heading for the divorce courts are shifting in terms of how they live with each other; maybe more cohabitation or open relationship in each?
Two debates and two votes, interconnected and intertwined at a Scottish level, whereas in the Westminster bubble, the obsession is solely on Europe, parliamentary sovereignty, and a misplaced belief that the UK can shift itself into some Atlanticist or ‘Anglosphere’ orbit. This despite Obama’s gentle protestations.
This moment is a threat to the independence debate, with more uncertainty and risk, yet it is also an opportunity. Scotland is whatever the small differences in public opinion between us and the rest of the UK, a European nation which aspires to be part of the mainstream of the continent.
The union Cameron and the Eurosceptics are defending is a deeply unappealing one: defence of the City of London, deregulation, tax havens, and uncodified human rights. It says something about the deep crisis of progressive Britain and Labour that such a mix should be able to seize the political agenda, but it has.
This isn’t our union. It isn’t the union most Scots want and we should be thankful amid all the uncertainty and fluidity that Cameron has begun to make it clear what kind of European and British union he wants.