segunda-feira, 30 de maio de 2016

The battle for Europe

The battle for Europe
As Britain prepares to vote on EU membership, both friends and enemies of the project agree that it is in trouble — yet draw radically different conclusions about what to do next
MAY 25, 2016 by: Tony Barber

Pope Francis pulled no punches in November 2014 when he addressed the European Parliament on the EU’s deepening malaise. “In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and ageing, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother’, no longer fertile and vibrant. As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions,” the pope said.

Just a few weeks ago, Francis revisited his theme. In a Vatican speech that sounded almost like an Old Testament lament, he asked: “What has happened to you, the Europe of humanism, the champion of human rights, democracy and freedom? What has happened to you, Europe, the home of poets, philosophers, artists, musicians, and men and women of letters? What has happened to you, Europe, the mother of peoples and nations, the mother of great men and women who upheld, and even sacrificed their lives for, the dignity of their brothers and sisters?”

In these remarks he had in mind the EU’s stumbling and, in some countries, defiantly mean-spirited response to the refugee and migrant emergency that erupted last year on the bloc’s southern borders. However, the pope is not the only world leader friendly to the EU who worries that the 28-nation bloc is in the grip of some more profound crisis, or combination of crises. These range from economic stagnation, voters’ disenchantment with traditional political parties and the rise of national populism to the no longer inconceivable prospect that the EU will one day be as irrelevant to Europe’s future as the Holy Roman Empire was by the time Napoleon did away with it in 1806. In Britain, meanwhile, voters are preparing for a June 23 referendum on whether or not to stay in the EU, a decision that is certain to have substantial consequences for all Europe, especially if the verdict is to leave.

All four books under review recognise that the EU is in deep trouble, but they differ in their proposed solutions. Brendan Simms and Giles Merritt hold that much closer integration, at least among France, Germany and the rest of the 19-nation eurozone, is essential to restoring Europe’s fortunes. Chris Bickerton doubts that this is a realistic prospect, contending that the EU is floundering and losing its appeal because of a lack of democracy and accountability in Brussels and — a particularly valuable insight — because of a broader mistrust that separates citizens from political elites in practically every member state. For his part, John R Gillingham is relentlessly negative about the EU, asserting that it is unravelling at a precipitous rate and that, if it is to survive, it will have to abolish the euro and renationalise its political institutions.

As Simms observes in Britain’s Europe, an entertaining and cogently argued book, the life of the EU and its predecessor, the European Economic Community, established by the 1957 Treaty of Rome, has coincided with the most peaceful and prosperous era in European history. But this is no guarantee that all will be well forever. “The failure of the European project, and the collapse of the current continental order, would be not only a catastrophic blow to the populations on the far side of the Channel but also to the United Kingdom, which would be directly exposed to the resulting storms, as it always has been,” Simms warns.

A history professor at the University of Cambridge, Simms writes that the political and social systems of England, and later Britain, have always been shaped by military, political and economic pressures originating in continental Europe. It started with the emergence of the 10th-century English state in response to Viking invasions. Centuries later, the threat of Louis XIV’s France prompted the 1688-89 Glorious Revolution, which sealed England’s future as a parliamentary democracy, and the 1707 Anglo-Scottish union, which created the UK. In the post-1945 era, the cold war division of Europe and the EEC’s launch exerted a decisive influence over British security and economic policies.

Simms refers more than once to the pithy phrase of Winston Churchill in 1913, when he was First Lord of the Admiralty — Europe is “where the weather comes from”. The storms of 1914 and 1939 proved Churchill’s point. But the other organising theme of Simms’s book is that Britain has repeatedly shown, especially in the 20th century, that it can prevail in the harshest circumstances without sacrificing democracy and the rule of law. In the author’s opinion, this experience has made British history and political culture so distinctive that, even though the UK ought to stay in the EU, it is unlikely ever to give up sovereignty to the extent required to create a unified Europe.

The best way forward, Simms says, is for the eurozone to engage in “a single collective act of will” and establish a federation, just as the UK emerged in 1707 and the US came out of the constitutional convention of 1787. Furthermore, Britain should welcome a strong, united eurozone because it would serve the most enduring English and British interest down the ages — namely, the elimination or at least reduction of dangers emanating from the continent.

It is an eloquent argument, but one suspects that it will not completely convince Bickerton, a political scientist also at Cambridge. He builds a case in The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide that Europe’s fundamental problem lies in its flawed methods of democratic representation. “Hostility towards the EU today is part of a much wider crisis in European politics which does not arise from the EU as such. It is really a crisis of politics tout court, driven by hostility to the very [national] political institutions that an earlier generation of Eurosceptics had believed they were defending,” Bickerton writes.

In his view, this — quite apart from the EU’s disputes over everything from refugees to Greek debt — is what makes unlikely a great leap forward in European integration. “After all, the EU is only as strong as its member states. And if they cannot command the authority of their citizens, then the EU is as threatened as they are,” he says.

In what is a lucid, helpful guide to the EU’s structures and operating methods, Bickerton observes that another troubling issue is the lack of transparency in the way the EU makes laws. Behind closed doors the European Commission, national governments, the European Parliament’s main political party groups and thousands of lobbyists cut deals, ensuring that about 80 per cent of laws sail through the EU legislature with a minimum of public debate. One might wish for the parliament, as the EU’s only directly elected institution, to stand up for more openness. Instead, Bickerton says, the opposite is true. As in some Faustian bargain, the parliament sells its soul as the representative body of the peoples of Europe in order to maximise its influence as an organ of the EU’s hybrid lawmaking system.

For all the EU’s faults, Bickerton leans to the view that Europe would be a more unstable place without it. “To argue that life would be better without the EU implies a heroic effort of constructing afresh a new model of existence for Europe and for the countries that make it up. In a risk-averse age, replacing the EU with something else is perhaps the riskiest of all projects,” he says.

Merritt is no more enamoured than Bickerton with the EU’s lack of openness, commenting: “Distant, remote, inscrutable, politically unanswerable, untouched by the new austerity, and seemingly indifferent to criticism, the EU institutions have increasingly fewer friends or even sympathetic ears”. However, he says it is not all their fault: “Blaming Brussels for Europe’s weaknesses is to shoot the messenger. The member governments are in the EU’s driving seat, and they have been making a poor job of driving.”

The founder of Friends of Europe, a Brussels think-tank, Merritt has decades of experience in the EU capital and an undimmed passion for a united Europe: “the case for genuine political integration”, he writes, is “no longer a theoretical goal but a practical necessity”. His book’s chief virtue is that, with chapters on Africa, Asia and the digital revolution, it places the EU’s challenges in broader global and technological contexts. He rightly emphasises that, for the sake of Europe’s younger generations, the vital task is to inject more dynamism into the economy so that Europe, which at times seems to display a “cultural resistance to becoming more innovation-friendly”, can hold its own in an increasingly competitive world.

Merritt pinpoints the shortcomings of the commission, which he describes as staffed by virtually unsackable officials immersed in “a culture of arrogance and inertia”. As for the EU legislature, it “isn’t a real parliament: it can’t raise taxes, it can’t declare war, and it doesn’t provide the EU executive with any sort of democratic legitimacy. That’s the nub of the EU’s problem: when things go wrong, there’s no mechanism for ousting those who have been responsible for taking far-reaching political decisions on behalf of the people of Europe”.

Such criticisms have force because the author making them is a devout EU supporter. By contrast, Gillingham — an American historian of modern Europe and an outspoken critic of the Union — has written a book whose anti-EU animus submerges its more perceptive passages. The chapters on EEC history up to the early 1980s are a useful corrective to much writing on the EU, insofar as they stress the importance for Europe’s postwar development of non-European factors, such as expanding global trade and the protection provided by Washington’s leadership of the western alliance.

Once the book turns to events after 1985, however, everyone and everything involved with the EU comes under sneering attack. The ideas of Jacques Delors, the commission’s most influential president, who served from 1985 to 1995, are “invariably woolly and tedious, as well as contradictory”. Jean-Claude Juncker, Commission president since 2014, is an “apparatchik” who is well-versed in “Orwellian policymaking”. There is a “pervasive culture of corruption” in Europe and “the so-called European Dream is dead”.

Gillingham’s polemic might have carried more weight if his book were not riddled with basic errors of fact. He wrongly describes Antoine Pinay as Charles de Gaulle’s prime minister in the 1960s (Pinay was premier in 1952-53 and finance minister in 1958-60). He misdates the start of François Mitterrand’s term as French president to 1978 (it was 1981). He incorrectly says Silvio Berlusconi first became Italian prime minister in 1992 (it was 1994). Bizarrely, he states that Pascal Lamy was “president of the IMF” (no such job exists, and Lamy was director-general of the World Trade Organisation).

Gillingham has a point when he asserts that the EU’s “present sorry state was not predetermined, but due to a history of unsound thinking, bad attitudes, poor policymaking and inertia”. However, one does not have to be a blind admirer of the EU to recognise the argument of Simms, Bickerton and Merritt that Europe, including Britain, might be in even more trouble without it. In less than a month we shall know whether a majority of Britons agree.

Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation, by Brendan Simms, Allen Lane, RRP£20, 352 pages

The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide, by Chris Bickerton, Pelican, RRP£8.99, 304 pages

Slippery Slope: Europe’s Troubled Future, by Giles Merritt, OUP, RRP£16.99, 288 pages

The EU: An Obituary, by John R Gillingham, Verso, RRP£12.99/$19.95, 288 pages

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor

Photograph: Reuters

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