Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The European Question

There was once famously soimething called "The Irish Question" which historically few people claimed to understand and to which no one had the answer. It bedevilled British politics throughout the 19th and early 20th Centuries and was arguably one of the key factors in the shaping of the modern British political landscape as Ireland was one of the issues which came to overwhelm the ideals of the Gladstonian Liberals.

Its modern equivelent might be "The European Question" which (and I'll try to define it) relates to the economic, social, political and cultural relationship we wish to have with Continental Europe. This is steeped in historical animositiues, cultural stereotypes and geographical realities. The English Channel is, for example, not just a physical barrier separating us from Europe but is in many ways a mental barrier.

Intrinsically and linguistically, we look to the Americans, the Australians, the New Zealanders and Canadians as some kind of cultural kin ignoring the obvious point that they are diverging from us and falling more under the American or Asian cultural sphere. Our view of Europe remains resolutely Churchillian and steeped in the mythos of 1940. We hesitated and dithered about joining the Common Market in the 1960s and 1970s when it was essentially the club for the wealthy west Europeans though we secretly admired West Germany's economic performance from the ruins of 1945.

In the end, we joined but have never been enthausiastic participants in the "European Project" playing an unbalancing role seeking to pre-empt any putative Franco-German Axis. In 1989, Communism ended and a raft of new states emerged from the Cold War darkness. Conservatives saw these new states as a bulwark against emerging federalism - having left one glacis, surely these newly-liberated states won't want to see another emerge. Socialists saw these new states as a bulwark against right-wing policies while Liberals saw the new states as the hope for a new truly international Europe.

All were wrong - the economic realities took over. For the West, the East was a source of cheap labour, for the East, the West was a land of unparalleled opportunity and so they have come west in their hundreds of thousands, former East Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Croatians and latterly Romanians and Bulgarians, all wanting a share of what appears to be the enormous wealth of the European West.

Margaret Thatcher signed up to the Single Market perhaps forgetting that the free movement of capital leads inexorably to the free movement of labour as Norman Tebbit once implied. People "got on their bikes and looked for work" which meant coming to London and other parts of the UK. This new wave of European immigration unsettled indigenous populations and overwhelmed local services which were totally unprepared for the influx of new workers and their families.

Into the mix was thrown the single currency, the ultimate representation of a common economic destiny. Britain and Denmark stayed out but in 1999 the Franc, Mark, Peseta, Lire and others were consigned to history and the ungainly Euro was born. Yet the initial fears of the doom-mongers seemed misplaced in the 2000s - the European economies did well and the illusion of prosperity spread from the North into the remotest corners of the Mediterranean countries.

In 2008, that whole edifice collapsed. The realisation dawned on Spain, Italy, Greece and others that their prosperity had been a chimera built on feet of sand. As the rich retrenched, the southern European countries find themselves in a world of pain but, trapped within the Euro, were unable to take the kind of action (devaluing currencies) that they had been able to in the past. The alternative was a regimen of brutal public expenditure cuts which have impoverished a generation and left a vast pool of unemployed,

In Britian, the collapse was not quite so profound but the once-welcome immigrants were no longer viewed so kindly - as they became unemployed, they were seen as being scroungers leeching off the limited resources of an already overburdened State. As the Eurozone threatened to implode, we considered ourselves glad to be out of it.

With the passage of time, those who have always advocated either greater distance or complete removal from the European Union have found a louder voice citing the failure of the economic policies of the 2000s as their rationale. Within the main governing parties, there has been a paralysis of decision or indecision. Having been committed to Britain's membership of the European Union (EU), these parties find themselves confronting an incrasingly hostile public looking for someone or something to blame for what they see as growing social and economic crisis.

The Conservative journey from being enthausiasts of Europe through mild scepticism to outright hostility is a fascinating one and deserving of its own thread in many ways. Now, the ever-opportunistic Tories have abandoned their principles and, as they see thewir vote slipping away to parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP) are falling over themselves to sound as hostile and Europhobic as possible.

A fascinating article by Simon Jenkins in Tuesday's London Evening Standard argues with some coherence for changes to London's relationship with both the EU and the UK. It's not just the traditional political and economic relationships that are being questionned, others are as well.

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