Monday, 4 January 2016

An Obsession with Empire

From time to time, I come across descriptions of Britain as having "an obsession with empire" and hankering after past glories. Ironically, the empire was not popular with the British public until the mid-nineteenth century when Imperial Culture was promoted to bolster support for the monarchy. Empire sentiment reached its peak at the time of the Boer wars, when Britain's hold over empire was already weakening. Following two world wars, it became clear that Britain could no longer afford to maintain an empire.  The great majority of people in Britain today have grown-up and lived in a post-imperial Britain and I have not encountered anyone with a desire to go back - empires are expensive and a hassle to maintain.

However, Britain has become entangled with another form of empire, as illustrated by the following quotes from leading european politicians:
"Sometimes I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire" - Jose Manuel Barroso, former President of the European Commission  
"Europe must become an empire - in the good sense of the word."  Guy Verhofstadt - current leader of the ALDE group in European Parliament and former Prime Minister of Belgium 
So I was particularly struck by this article in the Times by Edward Lucas at the end of 2015, which describes the EU as an empire in a mess.  He makes two very striking and disturbing suggestions:
  • The EU may end in catastrophe, but we should gamble on it succeeding.  
  • Concerns over the EU's survival and effectiveness trump concerns over democracy.

Lucas claims that the advantages of the single market, common currency and passport-free travel requires and justifies loss of national sovereignty to "imperial" Europe and trumps concerns over democracy.  Lets have a look at the 4 areas he discusses :

1) Competition Directorate

The European Commission has sole responsibility for both investigating and ruling on individual cases (regarding mergers, takeovers, cartels and the use of state aid).  Only the European Court of Justice (ECJ) can overturn a Commission decision on a competition case.  The competition directorate-general - above all the competition commissioner – possess huge power over member states and corporations.

The Competition Directorate has faced criticism for: its dual role (investigating and ruling); acting in the interest of competitors rather than championing consumers; creating extra costs for taxpayers & businesses.  The rules on state aid have regularly brought frustration from the French Government and would prevent Jeremy Corbyn's Labour party from implementing many of its policies (which makes Corbyn's recent conversion to a pro-EU stance particularly confusing).

A functioning Single Market will need rules and judicial mechanisms to ensure free and fair competition.  However, this does not provide justification for creating a supra-national political union.  Certainly, the current model of placing huge power to both investigate and decide into the hands of unelected commissioners without democratic oversight seems positively unhealthy.

2) Energy Directorate

Lucas claims credit for the EU's Energy Directorate in destroying Russia’s abusive and discriminatory gas export business.  Far more likely causes are the global collapse in oil/gas prices and US-led advances in fracking, allowing European countries to seek alternative sources of oil and gas.  In short, we have free markets to thank, not the EU.

3) Eurozone

Lucas admits the whole structure has been constructed without democratic consent, based on wishful thinking and may still blow up. Southern Europe has been ravaged with high unemployment and virtually zero overall growth since the Euro's introduction - all of which seems to bear out Milton Friedman's idea that the Eurozone was never an "optimal currency area".
Europe exemplifies a situation unfavourable to a common currency. It is composed of separate nations, speaking different languages, with different customs, and having citizens feeling far greater loyalty and attachment to their own country than to a common market or to the idea of Europe. — Milton Friedman, The Times, November 19, 1997

4) Schengen

"Schengenland" is described by Lucas as stretching from the southern tip of Italy to the north of Norway. Norway of course is not in the European Union, but is part of the Nordic Passport Union, which allows citizens of the Nordic countries (Denmark (Faroe Islands included), Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland) to travel and reside in another Nordic country without any travel documentation.  These nations have been operating a prototype Schengen since 1952 on the basis of international co-operation, which would seem to scotch the idea that the supra-national EU is needed to provide passport-free travel.

Lucas then identifies the twin threats to Schengen of terrorism and migration as requiring an  "imperial" European Police Force and European Border Army, with authority to override member states wishes.  This of course is a classic use of a "beneficial crisis" to extend the power and authority of the EU.   Spurning inter-national co-operation for a policy which over-rides national sovereignty / democratic consent seems destined to provoke more political unrest across Europe.

Saving the Empire

Lucas admits that "costs and constraints are far higher than originally advertised".  I'll say !  The Euro, always a political rather than an economic project, has had a devastating impact on Europe's prosperity.  Democratic consent has been routinely over-ridden.  It is both ironic and disturbing that the EU has spurred a rise in an extreme, nationalist politics it was supposed to eliminate.

Having graphically described the shortcomings of the EU, Lucas appeals to voters to save imperial Europe.  I find this to be an increasingly common refrain in the EU Referendum debate:

Even more worryingly, some of the most cherished projects of European unity are in deep trouble – the Schengen zone buckling under the weight of new migration, and the euro bedevilled by flaws which were obvious at the start. There is a legitimate question as to whether the EU can survive in its current form two or three decades from now.
....  There is no doubt that without the United Kingdom, the EU would be weaker. It would lose the fifth largest economy of the world, the continent’s greatest centre of finance, and one of its only two respected military powers. We will have to ask, disliking so many aspects of it as we do, whether we really want to weaken it ... William Hague
Firstly they will lose the best performing economy in Europe. They will lose the economy that in 20 years is likely to be the biggest economy in Europe. They will lose the country with the longest and most historic foreign policy reach. They will lose one of only two countries with a military capability and a nuclear capacity. Now if Europe was formed (as it was) to look America and China and the big countries of the world in the eye as equals, if Britain comes out that ambition has gone.  John Major
We are currently being told that should the UK vote to remain within the EU, the UK will remain exempt from the Euro & Schengen arrangements (which are not popular with UK public in any case). Furthermore, membership of the EU is not a pre-requisite for participation in the Single Market.  EFTA EEA provides a "trade & co-operation" alternative (as exemplified by Norway) - remaining in the single market but regaining our voice/veto on international bodies and regaining control of our trade policy.

It appears we are being asked to vote "Remain" in order to save the EU empire from collapse - rather than for any consideration of UK advantage.

Alternatively, leaving the EU for EFTA EEA provides the advantages of the Single Market while restoring democracy and self-government.  An alternative Europe based on "trade, co-operation & democratic consent" then becomes a visible counterpoint to the failing, undemocratic EU.  I suspect other states will see this as a compelling alternative and follow the UK out of the EU.  A UK exit from the EU could be viewed as a lifeboat to save passengers from capsizing of ship "Imperial Europe" (as Lucas describes it).


The 1975 UK Referendum decision to remain in the EEC has often been portrayed as leaving behind our "obsession with empire".  In  reality, the British empire had already been consigned to history and we were abandoning our Commonwealth and EFTA allies (UK founded EFTA in 1960 with 6 other states) in order to take advantage of trade within a European Common Market. Ironically, EFTA concluded a free trade agreement in industrial goods with the EEC in 1977, just two years after the UK referendum. 

In this referendum, we again have a choice to make about "empire":  
  • Should we remain subordinate to a failing EU empire - at the cost of democracy and self-government ? 
  • Or should we leave the political/judicial control of the EU, and pursue "trade & co-operation" via the EEA EFTA route ?  (Which provides an alternative vision for Europe, based on "trade, co-operation and democratic consent")

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