Rome, Italy. 18 September. I am back again in the eternal city - the city which 2100 years ago saw a putative democracy replaced by tyranny in the name of empire. Being here again in this magnificent Italian capital the many dangers facing Europe and Europeans are brought into sharp focus. A couple of days ago in Riga I sat down with some very serious, senior Germans to discuss Britain and the EU. It was a really very important chat with well-meaning German friends who in that wonderfully German way simply could not for the life of them understand why Britain does not get the German ‘vision’ for Europe. Put simply, for we British the well-intended rush to political union can only end in some form of unintended tyranny.
Only the British seem to understand this. In a recent YouGov poll over 60% of Britons wanted either much looser ties with the EU, or to leave the EU completely. This contrasted with 62% of Germans who wanted deeper integration, apparently to ensure greater order, and 63% of Italians who wanted a United States of Europe, ostensibly to ensure greater order and more money.
I tried hard to explain British concerns but with only limited success. First, the balance between power and democracy is pivotal. We British have a profound problem with the concentration of too much political power in too few properly accountable hands (never a good idea in Europe). That is the logical conclusion of the dangerously euphemistic Federation of Nation-States proposed by the European Commission in its efforts to deepen the bureaucratic ‘control’ it already exerts over Europeans. It is playing its old trick of using crisis to claim more power unto itself in the name of efficiency. Indeed, give the Commission an inch and it has consistently taken the non-accountable and proverbial power mile.
Second, fairness is critically important to we British. Germany has too often talked Europe but meant Germany and does not play by the rules. Germany has repeatedly blocked the directive on a single market in services simply because the British are far too competitive and vested German interests want protection. Indeed, Germany has twice as many cases as Britain before the European Court of Justice for breach of European law.
Third, cost matters. Britain pays too much and given that Britain has no sense of the ‘Europeanness’ Germans not always convincingly claim to have (a German Europe or a European Germany?) cost matters profoundly to the British.
Fourth, trust is minimal. After over ten years of British troops doing too much of the dying in Afghanistan compared to caveat-protected fellow Europeans British faith in the reliability of European allies has been deeply undermined, whatever the numbers of troops deployed. The result is a complete loss of faith in Europeans as reliable defence partners and a re-discovering of a defence Anglosphere.
Finally, I warned my German friends not to take too seriously the ‘do not rock the boat’ assurances of the British Establishment. London is locked into managing a decline that is not shared by the British people who are prepared to pay a heavy price to protect their ancient liberties from a Brussels juggernaut that has shown scant regard over the years for their interests. As political union deepens Britain’s politicians will be able to resist calls for action only for so long, whatever the advice of their ‘gone native’ advisors.
Given that can Germany and Britain find common ground? Maybe. The formal re-energising of a kind of super-European Free Trade Area (EFTA) with power to oversee the single market but from within the EU framework could perhaps offer a way forward. It would of course mean Britain would be a half-price, half-member with half-influence (Britain’s reality today) and it would in effect be the mother of all opt-outs. Still, Britain could content itself that its beloved single market is alive and well and use the political space to work to extend it across the whole of Europe to include Turkey. Germany could content itself with a leadership job well done and an EU intact.
What is clear is that the status quo ante is no longer an option and even as a half-member Britain would retain profound worries about encroaching tyranny. We British have spent centuries trying to find the right balance between the state and the individual. Current plans for deeper EU political integration would once and for all destroy that political balance as democracy can only suffer with the concentration of ever more power in the ever fewer hands of the very people who caused this crisis. Millions of Britons fought to prevent tyranny in Europe and Germany needs to understand that. .
The British will always resist tyranny however sophisticated its case and how well-crafted its false claims to be the heir of democracy.