Saturday, 10 December 2011

European Matters

I was in the pub last night, chatting to some friends, and kept catching glances of the news. The Prime Minister had refused to accord with some EU agreement. This made his party's more Eurosceptic wing happy, and upset both EU leaders and some prominent Britons who support the EU. I gave up on having an interest in the EU a few years ago, when I got roundly trounced in an online argument with a Dane. I had bad sources, I'm afraid. Neither The Daily Telegraph (surprise!) nor the BBC (OK, that is a surprise) had accurately reported some bit of EU legislation. So I decided, egg all over my face, that if I couldn't rely on my media to give me even a few clues to work out the truth of EU affairs, I would give up. Needless to say, the recent removal of Italy's and Greece's leaders for not being acceptable to the EU and the financial markets renewed my interest in European affairs.

Yes, we all know that Western democracy is rather more of a facade than we like to publicly admit, since it's really an elective oligarchy,* and our elected leaders have tens of thousands of constituents whose varied opinions they are unlikely to represent. Nonetheless, seeing two national leaders deposed not by their electorates but by financiers is alarming even to my calloused sensitivities. If you're worried that I am about to launch a hearty attack on bankers, the Tory Party, the EU, the PM or anyone else, I hereby relieve you of your fears. I'm going to talk through what I have managed to deduce in the last twenty hours or so.

The EU wanted to fasten together more tightly the various national finances of its constituent nations. This would allow it to more easily deal with the current financial crisis. I am somewhat sceptical of tying varying national economies together to solve a crisis that was caused in part by, er, tying dissimilar economies together. Greece is not Germany, and what works for one may well prove unsuitable for the other. Be that as it may, I am no economist, and for all I know a concerted approach now is a splendid way out of the tunnel. After all, if we all held hands and walked into the blackness, we're more likely to find our way out as a group if we grip one another's paws tightly. That said, we might all fall over in a heap and break our necks.

However, while twenty-six of the EU countries agreed in principle to the deal, the twenty-seventh, my own, opposed it. Not all of the other countries will necessarily support it. Ireland, for instance, might have a referendum. One of Prime Minister David Cameron's problems was a proposed tax on financial transactions. This would be imposed on transactions in Europe, not globally. Other places, such as Singapore and Hong Kong would be rather pleased to collect traders fleeing. Such a tax was tried before in Switzerland some time ago, and it resulted in the near total collapse of the country's trading industry. Funnily enough, a lot of the trading fled to London, which had no such tax. There is a difference between Switzerland and Europe, but it is easy to see why Cameron and his Chancellor, Osborne, would be worried about the possible impact of this. The City is rather good at keeping the country in money,** er, when banks aren't selling mortgages to people with no incomes, that is.

The other reason why Cameron will have opposed the EU idea might not be obvious to people who do not live in the UK. The British media is very Eurosceptic, as are British voters and, most significantly of all, Cameron's own Conservative Party. Indeed, in the days leading up to the vote, there was a lot of reporting in The Daily Telegraph (Britain's last surviving broadsheet newspaper and the Tory Party's unofficial newsletter, one might reasonably remark) to the effect that an internal revolt was brewing, possibly led by Iain Duncan Smith (if my memory isn't getting muddled). So if Cameron had not opposed the treaty, he would have been pilloried in the press, and probably suffered a serious loss of prestige in his own party. I would not have been surprised if it had proved politically fatal, and led to his replacement with a more Eurosceptic Tory leader sooner or later.

This last point does not seem to be appreciated abroad. I've spoken to a chap from Denmark, for instance, who has been extremely helpful in clarifying for me a lot of these details, but who believes that Cameron is being deliberately obstructive for no good reason. As far as I can see, Cameron is taking heed of national politics, and particularly those of his own party, in formulating his stances and actions in regard to the European Union. Whether one agrees or disagrees with what he has done and will do, it seems pretty damned predictable to me that sooner or later he was going to have to have a fight with the EU over something, if only to keep his own MPs in line.

My Danish friend has pointed out that Cameron may have harmed his position internationally, by isolating Britain from potential allies among the other twenty-six states, and that this might have the result of pushing through the agreement even sooner. Moreover, everyone agrees that by taking this stand Cameron has put a wedge between Britain and the EU. Another friend has remarked that it seems foolish for Cameron not to have attempted to form a rival axis within the EU to that of Paris-Berlin. I do not personally believe that is politically viable. The level of Euroscepticism in the British media and consequently the voting public is so high that such a long-term strategic idea would be pilloried as kowtowing to the EU. In decades to come, with another government, such a strategy might work. Even the last Labour government had to make itself sound tough on European matters, and so I do not believe we can expect a Conservative government*** to behave in a warmer manner, not in the aftermath of the disastrous financial mess with the Euro, and not in the aftermath of the replacement of Italy's and Greece's leaders.

In conclusion, while Cameron could have fought the EU on some other issue, it is perhaps for the best that he did so on this one. He has prevented a revolt in his party at the expense of Britain's power in Europe. A revolt in his party would have led to a reduction in Britain's power in Europe, as any leader would have had to oppose the EU. Since the more Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party now regards Cameron so favourably, he has more room to manoeuvre in European politics. Whether this will be of any benefit to him or this country remains to be seen.

I have tried to compose the above in a fairly neutral manner. I find some elements of the EU unpalatable, obviously, but I also hold a rather comically  John Donne-ish sentiment about Britain: that she is not an island. ;-) We are part of Europe; we are part of the world; we do not have the Empire; we do not have the luxury of "Glorious Isolation". All the best to you, dear reader!

* Switzerland probably deserves a special mention here, since she has those seemingly charming convocations of voters in their thousands. When one takes a closer look and realises that Switzerland's democracy took until 1971 to give women the right to vote, one does start to think about the innate conservatism of society, and how this can regard desirable emancipation.
** The financial services sector as a whole made a total tax contribution of £53.4bn in 2009/10, representing 11.2% of total government tax receipts.
*** It seems hardly worth mentioning the Liberal Democrat part of the Coalition government at this point.

1 comment:

  1. A friend has kindly pointed out that I should have said Sweden had had a bad experience with the tax, not Switzerland. That'll teach me to rely on a Wikipedia page I looked at the day before composing the above, I suppose! I should also note that I am slightly closer to understanding why Cameron's move was unpopular in Europe. Apparently, a group of European countries would have been on our side in fighting the measures as a group, if he had not vetoed the idea at this stage. I am also informed that this recent agreement was not a preliminary to the implementation of a Tobin Tax. I have yet to square this with information from the same source that by opposing this Cameron has excluded Britain from further discussion of said tax. Confusing stuff, politics!


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