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Thinking the Unthinkable: Britain and a New Europe

 

Leaving the EU and the break up of the euro have been called ‘unthinkable’ by some. Yet history teaches that thinking the unthinkable sometimes works. This article was first published on 29 November 2011 on Suite 101.

Britain’s had an uneasy relationship with the European Union and its predecessors for forty years. Until recently, some powerful British voices urged the UK to abandon the pound and embrace the Euro.

However, fast-moving, spiralling out of control events and crises are set to change old thinking. Sometimes, in the search for the new, the past is rediscovered and given a modern twist.

What Would Churchill Have Said?

In his book European Integration and Disintegration, Robert Bideleux commented on the widely-held view that Winston Churchill believed a united Europe of states was possible, but without Great Britain’s involvement.

Churchill told American journal, The Saturday Evening Post (15 Feb 1930), that ‘we see nothing but good and hope in a richer, freer, more contented European commonality. But we have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe but not of it. We are linked, but not compromised. We are interested and associated but not absorbed’.

Bideleux stated Churchill’s view was that the only way to run Europe was for both Britain and the Soviet Union to keep out of European Affairs. Events and history have proved Churchill right. Those who opposed Britain’s entry into the euro currency have been vindicated as its collapse started in late 2011.

Where It All Went Wrong

The view from outside the bubble of European finance and politics was well expressed by the New York Times in October 2011. Steven Erlanger wrote that the euro was a ‘political project’ meant to unite Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was now doing the opposite.

Erlanger argued that the assumptions of the past 60 years suddenly seemed ‘hollow’. He said the EU was an apparent success, with its 500 million citizens enjoying a gross domestic product over $17 trillion, more than the USA’s. However it was in ‘economic and demographic decline’.

He pointed at falling share of global trade, ageing populations, over-generous social welfare, too high pay and sovereign debt. The euro is a tying-together currency which cannot be fixed without fundamental changes in the functioning of the huge European bloc.

He echoed what many commentators have said, that fiscal union with a treasury and a finance minister, unified tax and pension policies were needed. His view chimed with others that the will to create them was absent. Leadership confident to embrace solutions was simply not forthcoming.

If one of the driving forces behind the European project was to bring peace between Europe’s previously warring nations, then it’s possibly no longer working. The collapse of the euro with its hostile impact on economies around the world, is not an act of peace.

Historical Irony

Erlanger identified ‘new nationalism’ affecting collective responsibility and increasing Euro-scepticism, not only within the UK. The union of 27 (soon to be 28) nations is ‘almost ungovernable’, even with an allegedly professional bureaucracy. Their actions inflame resentment, the ‘democratic deficit’ is mushrooming.

As Erlanger pointed out, the historical ironies are considerable. Germany, who lost the war, is no longer strong enough to be the bank of last resort for the rest of the club it so desperately clings to. The Franco-German axis is less solid than it was, so the crumbling of old certainties gathers pace.

‘More Europe’ may seem like the answer to Eurocrats and the political elite. ‘Less Europe’ is more practical, meeting most voters’ needs and increasingly the likely outcome.

The Next Decade

One view of the next decade was voiced by Niall Ferguson in the Sunday Times, November 2011, in which he predicted that by 2021, the EU will ‘be dead, replaced by a United States of Europe’, but not a refashioned European Union.

The present eurozone would become this USE, with the capital in Vienna rather than Brussels. Belgium would split into two, both halves in the union. The former eastern-bloc countries like Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and the components of former Yugoslavia would congregate around the central Franco-German core in a fiscal union with its own strong currency.

Scandinavian states (Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Iceland) would form a Norse League. With its combined history of doubts about European integration and refusal to sacrifice more of its energy and fish-rich reserves to subsidising Mediterranean states, the Norse League would be a logical entity.

Ferguson thought that the United Kingdom would be reunited with Ireland. This quite astonishing development would arise despite and because of historical and sectarian divisions and common cultural and language connections. ‘Better the Brits than Brussels’ would be the slogan. It would make economic sense.

This powerful Reunited Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland would stand alone, but all three blocs would work in harmony, trading and sharing where desired. The new Reunited Kingdom would pursue an aggressively expansionist policy.

Fantasies

There were elements of farce in the Ferguson view. His new President of the USE was called Karl von Habsburg, the Archduke of Austria, playing on a historical circle from the old Austro-Habsburg empire. The new European treasury was called the European Finance Funding Office, ‘fondly referred’ to in the British press as “EffOff”.

He predicted the Arab spring would dissolve; President Obama would not be re-elected and an isolated Israel facing nuclear war with Iran rescued by the German part of the USE, anxious about their summer homes on the Med. He also imagined that David Cameron was entering his fourth term as Prime Minister, after allowing a referendum on EU-membership.

So, it was fantasy, designed to amuse the informed in troubled, uncertain times. But there are elements of truth and possibility visible within its central tenet. Most predictions about the future (doom-laden or not) are uncertain, human nature and behaviour being what they are.

History prepares us for the future. For many British people, anxious not to be further subsumed into Europe, it makes for briefly enjoyable wishful thinking.

Sources:

  • Robert Bideleux, European Integration and Disintegration: East and West (1996). Web 29 November 2011.
  • New York Times, Steven Erlanger. Euro, Meant to Unite Europe, Seems to Rend It, 19 October 2011. Web 29 November 2011.
  • The Sunday Times, Niall Ferguson, It’s 2021 and we’ve bid Europe farewell. 27 November 2011.

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