A cri de coeur from anti-euro euro man
I have had enough of being treated like an ill-mannered fellow in a Bateman cartoon who has made a social faux pas. This is my fight back, a cri de coeur from anti-euro European man. It seems that, in the dying days of the 20th century, any attempt to stimulate a debate over the appropriateness of Britain’s entry into the euro is met by the same type of reaction that a pornographer would have received at a Victorian tea-party.
Every time the euro gets raised in polite conversation in the liberal-Left circles within which I live, the >politeness soon goes out of the window. “How can you oppose the euro when you speak French?” was one supposedly witty riposte to my anti-euro arguments, expressed at length over my kitchen table. Well, I can. I might add that I went to a French school, speak passable Italian, had a Swedish mother and spend nearly all my holidays in the European Union. What’s more, I feel European. I relate more to the continental European culture of Renaissance palaces and Italian piazzas than to the English one of Tudor cottages and pubs.
Despite all that, I am adamantly opposed to the euro and I am happy to express my views, even if it means that my partner’s father, a cultured chap who is a foreign affairs academic, accuses me of being a ‘Little Englander’. He was reflecting the fact that the Tory eurosceptics and les petits commercants who lead the anti-European business movement have become so identified as the leaders of the anti-euro cause that anyone joining them must be Right and wrong.
A silence, therefore, has descended on the Left. In private, many people are either ignorant or doubtful about the euro but are hesitant about expressing their views in the face of a pro-euro hegemony dominated by trite notions such as: “We would save lots of money not having to go to the Bureau de Change.” Or: “Well, if they are all doing it, so must we.”
It is the deafening silence I find most galling. Here we are, going quietly into a project which has monumental consequences including, quite possibly, economic disaster and social breakdown, and we can’t even embark on a proper debate about it.
There are some similarities over that other issue which silenced the Left for so much of the post-war period: the attitude towards Communism in eastern Europe. There was a feeling, just as with the euro, that it wasn’t quite right but that it was generally better than any alternative. Anyone who opposed American imperialism had to be on the side of the angels and so the eastern European Communists were the good guys. Oh, of course they tended to do troublesome things like jail the opposition or, as in Romania, force thousands of people out of their villages in the name of some crazy dictator’s theories. They also wrote mind-numbingly boring tomes – the complete works of Joseph Stalin, for heaven’s sake – many of which still sit unread on north London bookshelves including this one. But when Czechoslovakia beat the USA at ice hockey, foolishly we cheered.
We were wrong not to engage in a debate then and we are equally mistaken now. In a way, something similar is happening. Just as the eastern European countries were satellites of the Soviet Union, we are ceding sovereignty to a super-state that, whilst ostensibly benign, has remarkably undemocratic tendencies. Until the Finns, using their Presidency to good effect, published the information on the Internet, meetings of ambassadors and their deputies were kept so secret that even the dates on which they were held were not released.
Our Kremlin is a mix of bankers and overpaid, pampered officials in Brussels who, as the fiasco over the ‘jobs for the dentist’ affair showed, are unaccountable and have jobs for life. There is the feeling on the Left that Brussels may not be perfect, but, like all those comrades in eastern Europe, the officials in charge are broadly a force for the good. That could not be more wrong. Would it not be fascinating if the Brussels wall were to fall and the citizens got hold of all those papers and documents which demonstrate the extent to which the Commission is a law unto itself?
There is even the notion, entertained by people who ought to know better, that signing up to full membership of the European club is a way of achieving socialism through the back door. This really is total nonsense. The Maastricht Treaty holds its signatories to a monetarist form of right-wing economics that has now largely been discredited. The very basis of the euro is flawed and outdated.
The euro is an uncontrollable beast. There is no European government that can make decisions about the European economy. Therefore, all power is in the hands of officials, principally bankers. The European Parliament is a sadly misnamed body which has some powers of scrutiny but does not legislate and cannot be likened to any other institution that bears the name of Parliament other than, to continue the analogy, the Soviet Duma.
The low turnout in the recent European elections was sheer common sense. People recognised the vote for what it was, a meaningless ‘going through the motions’ gesture. Nor should the European Parliament have any extra powers. It is inherently undemocratic because of the sheer size of its members’ constituencies and its cross-national remit. Real parliaments are about the subtle interplay of ideas and policies between a host of players, ranging from the executive and the members to a variety of pressure groups, lobbyists and constituents. None of that is possible in a Parliament that covers 15 countries, a dozen languages and is supposed to represent 375 million people.
This might seem like a digression away from the euro but it is an essential part of the argument. The lack of democracy is structural and therefore not remediable and any attempt to deepen the ties between the members of the EU through, say, a common currency is inherently undemocratic.
By signing up to the euro, we give away our right to determine economic policies. “Yes”, say the euro-supporters. “But we have lost that power anyway. Our interest rates are already largely set by the Bundesbank.” Oddly, that argument has been much less prevalent since the creation of the euro and the wide differentials between levels in the UK and in Euroland since January 1. They say that globalisation has meant that we have little say over the exchange rate. What is the difference, they say. It is all marginal, they say.
Yes, but life is lived at the margin. The fact that we can make small differences is better than not being able to make any at all. People feel that the process of voting and involvement in their country’s democracy can make a difference. Joining the euro will break that link. People will begin to question the very nature of their unspoken contract with the government. If they cannot influence it, why bother to vote? Why, indeed, participate at all? To return to the eastern European analogy, it will be a bit like voting in a Soviet election except that the Euro Party rather than the Communists will always win.
So, the two planks of my opposition to the euro – democracy and economics – are intrinsically linked. Democracy, barely a century old in much of Europe, is a fragile flower that needs careful nurturing and cannot be nurtured in a pan-European institution. The connection between voter and politician becomes too remote, too ephemeral.
The economic argument is essentially about the structural differences between the various European economies and the fact that, at whatever level we enter the euro, it will, over time, prove to be the wrong one: too high or too low. You only have to look at the past behaviour of exchange rates to understand that. Once economies begin to move completely out of kilter with the rest of Europe, leading to massive unemployment, the very stability of the region is at stake. Taking the democracy out of economics may lead to a total loss of democracy.
Moreover, there is an inherent dishonesty about the pro-euro argument. In the rest of the Union, there are real believers in the federalist project who see a United States of Europe as a genuine opportunity to create a superpower that will rival the US and China. But in the UK, the only mantra we hear is that it will be good for business and that we cannot be left on the sidelines. This is because the euro’s proponents know that the harmonisation of tax regimes and broader fiscal policies leading, in the end, to out-and-out federalism are the inevitable consequence of monetary union. They simply dare not explain that to the voters.
Let’s at least start debating this issue. Let’s talk about what Europe might be like in 20 years time and whether we want to be part of a federalist project. Let’s look at the alternatives, at the contradictions between expanding the Union and deepening the ties between its existing members. Let’s forget the Tory eurosceptics and let them rot in the lonely, white-skinned and dying market towns of Middle England and actively discuss the real issues of what should be the greatest political question of our lifetimes. I am convinced that, once the real implications of ceding our economic independence to unelected European officials become clear, Britain will vote a resounding no – whatever Mr Tony wants us to do.