Alphen, Netherlands. 16 October. In 1910 Brigadier-General Henry Wilson was giving a lecture arguing that a European war was inevitable and Britain’s only option was to ally with France. One of the attending officers responded by suggesting that only “inconceivable stupidity on the part of statesmen” could trigger such a disaster. Wilson responded with derision: “Inconceivable stupidity is just what you’re going to get”. A century on and “inconceivable stupidity” is alive and well at the highest levels in both America and Europe. Why?
Two events have prompted this blog. The first was a considered critique of my position on Europe from a senior Dutchman. The second was a new report written by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations under the chairmanship of former World Trade Organisation boss Pascal Lamy. Entitled Now for the Long Term the report focuses on short-termism in the business sector but could just as well apply to politics.
Take Europe. My Dutch friend offers two arguments for deeper European integration; aggregated influence afforded by the concentration of power in the EU and the “inevitable decline” of the European nation-state. For him it is vital that EU institutions be given much greater power over decision-making in the twin names of efficiency and effectiveness. In a sense he was implicitly suggesting that only the EU institutions are capable of the long-term thinking that Europe desperately needs.
To some extent he has a point. Take David Cameron’s attempts to repatriate powers from Brussels to Britain. Cameron is arguing his case purely on the grounds of Britain’s national interest. It is doomed to fail. Rather, Britain should be presenting a principled case about the nature of governance in Europe and the dangers of creating an over-mighty European executive.
Only this morning it was announced that in 2015 the European Commission will demand that all European citizens dispose of their garbage/trash in four separate containers. Such meddling by Brussels has gone way too far as the Commission interprets European treaties to the maximum in its power struggle with member-states.
The trouble with the long-term is that in Europe it is comprised of many national short-terms - elections. In principle an integrated EU led by a European Government underpinned with proper democratic oversight by a functioning European Parliament is very attractive.
However, most of those that argue for deeper European integration do so purely on the basis of short-term economics. On the face of it to them a rich economic dictatorship would be preferable to poor democracy. That of course is not what they believe but that is the long-term implication of their short-termism.
Indeed, if the centre of power gravity in Europe was the European Commission and today’s European Parliament the ratio between the representative and the represented would go from roughly 1 parliamentary deputy for every 50,000 citizens to 1 parliamentary deputy to every 500,000 citizens. That is why Europe is at a dangerous juncture and why I as a citizen speak out.
Furthermore, the very nature of EU politics far from aggregating the power of EU member-states is actually accelerating its decline. Today, no-one in Europe knows what or who is responsible for what. The member-states blame Brussels and Brussels blames the member-states. In the space in between there is a massive sovereignty black-hole into which power and accountability is lost.
National politicians and their officials fail to see such dangers lost as they are in the short-term minutiae of the daily EU haggle. Indeed, Carl Bildt and a few others excepted most European politicians have lost sight of the big, dangerous trends taking place beyond Europe’s borders. Indeed, one only has to look at the wilful and imprudent disarmament in Europe to realise the extent to which European political short-termism is disconnecting European security from world security.
The EU and its advocates HAVE to exaggerate the smallness of the European nation-state to justify their demand for the concentration of state power in EU institutions. Sadly, this power struggle is rendering both the European state and the EU impotent with NATO caught in the politico-strategic middle.
Now, I am a passionate believer in close, even intense co-operation between European states. Moreover, I can perfectly see why the fights against transnational crime and other evils of the twenty-first century world need co-ordinating European institutions. However, Europe is not the United States and having seen the self-aggrandizing European elite at close quarters I have absolutely no faith in checks and balances. Indeed, too often the European elite demonstrate all the hallmarks of a self-selecting European aristocracy.
And therein lies the weakness in my own argument; for me democracy should come before power as a political principle. However, only stable power can think long-term. The very holding of power to account by definition renders power short-termist and tends to promote ‘inconceivable stupidities’. However, when push comes to shove short-term stupidity is less damaging than long-term stupidity - which is why I will never be a European federalist.
Euro-Realism: now for the long-term?