x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The European pipe dream is over: now it's time for the harsh reality

As the EU teeters on the brink, its emperors are shown naked and their grand projet stands revealed as incoherent, lacking in democratic legitimacy and ultimately not fit for purpose.

As fresh calamities are daily visited upon the European Union, its leaders forced to announce their departures from office - first Greece's George Papandreou, next Silvio Berlusconi of Italy - sceptics who warned that the single currency was an ill-conceived project, a triumph of misguided idealism over the reality of a too-disparate group of nations, may feel vindication but scant triumphalism.

If the euro zone breaks up, the disastrous effects will be felt not just by the eager enthusiasts for monetary union, who with equal celerity bent the rules to admit states whose economies did not meet the criteria, but by those EU members with the good sense to stay out. The crisis exposes not just the weaknesses of the currency, however: it lays bare the fact that the EU as currently constituted, is itself the product of an arrogant, technocratic elite who desire nothing more than to leech ever more authority from its member countries.

Some of those countries - particularly those from the former Eastern Bloc - have had such little experience of democracy that their parliamentarians have not had time to grow grey hairs before they have been bullied or seduced into handing over decision-making processes to the EU that should properly be the preserve of nation states. And now, as the EU teeters on the brink, its emperors are shown naked and their grand projet stands revealed as incoherent, lacking in democratic legitimacy and ultimately not fit for purpose.

None of this will be admitted, of course, by the likes of the French president Nicolas Sarkozy or Germany's Angela Merkel. Ludicrously, outrageously, both Merkel and the EU Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, declared last week that the unfolding disaster only shows the need for "more Europe, not less Europe". They cannot acknowledge that the reason the continent's leaders are finding it almost impossible to act decisively, and are thus constantly being overtaken by events, is because they do not have the backing of their populations for EU-wide measures.

The nation state still takes priority over the EU in the hearts of its people; and this has long been the case. The exception are the Euro-fanatics who dominate the European Commission (which is supposed to be a civil service, but which acts with greater presumption than many a government) and who also, crucially, have dominated European political discourse. Such is the through-the-looking-glass nature of the fanatics that it is those who have queried the necessity of turning so many powers over to unelected continental bodies who are labelled by them as "loonies".

Some of the enthusiasts have been honest, it is true. The former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, for instance, cheerfully admitted that the Lisbon Treaty that became effective in 2009 was merely the European Constitution - rejected after a series of referendums four years before - under a different name. Others, particularly in the UK, have been disgracefully deceitful. They pretend that when a majority voted to confirm entering the then European Economic Community in a referendum in 1975, they realised they were endorsing an "ever closer" political union, when most people thought they were merely joining the "Common Market", as it was then known.

In his autobiography, A Life at the Centre, the veteran British politician Roy Jenkins, later to be a president of the European Commission, wrote that neither he nor his fellow "yes" campaigner, the former Conservative prime minister Ted Heath, attempted "to suggest that all that was at stake was a narrow trade-policy decision. It was political Europe in which we were interested. A common market … was a vital step on the road but it was not the ultimate goal or the primary purpose."

Yet only two years before, Heath had declared in a television broadcast: "There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified." In fact, the very opposite was the case, as a British judge made clear in a ruling in 2001: "This country quite voluntarily surrendered the once-seemingly immortal concept of the sovereignty of parliament and legislative freedom by membership of the European Union," he declared. "As a once-sovereign power, we have said we want to be bound by Community law."

For a continent that likes to think of itself as the home and originator of democracy, such decisions are of the utmost importance. Yet the EU's attitude towards the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box has consistently been dismissive. Every time a country votes "no" in a referendum on proposed changes (which always means more centralisation), it has been told it has given the wrong answer and must try again - as Denmark was in 1992 over Maastricht and Ireland was in 2008 over the Lisbon Treaty. The EU's outraged reaction to Papandreou's wish to give his populace a chance to have their say on measures that will cripple and emasculate the Greek economy in order to make it better is another example. The European technocrats, always know best - and never mind what the people think.

Supporters of the EU trump their internationalism and paint the doubters as narrow-minded nationalists. But the truth is that real internationalists should spurn the EU as an inward-looking organisation whose concerns have always been parochial.

A massive 40 per cent of its budget goes on the Common Agriculture Policy, which supports wasteful, outmoded and under-productive European farmers at the expense of those in the developing world, whose products are saddled with huge tariffs - a state of affairs quite at odds with the free trade ideology that the EU is so keen to preach.

Even the reason for founding the Union - to stop France and Germany going to war again - was essentially an internal continental matter, and while it may have been admirable at the time, such fears are of no relevance today and the resulting dynamic has no place in Europe's governance in the 21st century.

Attempts at political, and now at monetary, union have proved utter failures. It is a commonplace to say that the EU needs to reform. In fact, it is time to look again at precisely what it is, and what it should be. When European countries, fellow members of Nato, cannot even agree on united action in Libya, it must be clear that any putative EU-wide foreign and defence policies can be no more than vague statements of intent.

Federalism, thankfully, remains a distant scenario. A bespectacled Belgian poet may now rejoice in being the first full-time President of the European Council, but if one poses Henry Kissinger's question - "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" - the answer is not Herman Van Rompuy. Nor should there be any one person who can speak for a continent so diverse that many of its member countries have far more in common with their former colonies than with each other.

A Europe of nation states, truly open to the world, preserving their own sovereign powers and sharing only those others that their peoples expressly desire to, might be a start.

To expect humility from the fanatics, however, would be an exercise in perpetual disappointment. "When men and women with sweeping ambitions for Europe decide to … they will be able to rekindle from the ashes the flame of a United Europe." Giscard d'Estaing wrote those words in 2007, but his acolytes - Merkel, Sarkozy, Barroso, van Rompuy et al - would clearly regard his sentiments as equally appropriate today. It is Europe's tragedy to be dominated by leaders whose faith in ever-closer union is so strong that no catastrophe could be sufficient to persuade them otherwise.

Any clear-sighted observer, on the other hand, would have to conclude that the voices of the Cassandras should at last prevail. For, as every classicist knows, the warnings of the Trojan prophetess may have been unwelcome, but they were always right. The moment when the dire predictions come about is precisely the time to recognise their accuracy, not to disregard them because to do so would be to admit the unpalatable truth - that the European dream of an out-of-touch elite has become a nightmare for its peoples.

Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.