OPINION: by Julian FalzonNews Weekly
The case for the European Union
, February 18, 2012
I refer to Colin Teese’s article “EU’s options for tackling the eurozone crisis” (News Weekly, December 10, 2011).
While I found it interesting, I would like to add a few points that I think, at least from a European perspective, could be insightful to the non-European reader.
The main thrust of the first part of the article was that Germany is taking Europe over just as it did in centuries past and that France is blindly allowing this to happen. These days, in the English-language press the myth that the EU is usurping power from unwilling sovereign states is quite popular.
Not surprisingly, the process of European integration is little understood. Its historical roots and the idea of a European family are hard to fathom for many who do not live in Europe.
Most Europeans are proud to be European and do not feel animosity towards their neighbours. This is a big change when compared to past attitudes, and this is largely thanks to integration and the idea that Europe has shared interests, ideals and objectives.
In my opinion, the EU is anything but an all-encompassing super-state. In the eurozone for example, many people were always aware, and in many cases happy, that the euro would in essence be a re-named Deutschmark. For many southerners this was deemed desirable as they hoped that their countries would start to be both more fiscally prudent and economically apt and that they would be re-born in Germany’s image so to speak.
Colin Teese also claims that democracy is threatened by the EU. I contend that democracy in Europe is still alive and well, even though Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Monti, may be a technocrat. One look at the constant political activity and the media there will tell you that. This is just a temporary measure in a country that is often very divided politically, and the decision has been accepted by most as a short-term bipartisan solution.
The fact that the separatist party Lega Nord was the only party to oppose Monti’s appointment speaks volumes of the level of acceptance this move had gained before his appointment.
While some may see the EU as not very democratic, many Europeans see the EU as a guarantor of democracy and transparency rather than seeing it as stealing sovereignty.
One must not forget that countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece, Slovenia and the former Warsaw Pact countries were until recently ruled by dictators. Admittedly, the democratic deficit still needs to be addressed and this is partly being solved by gradually handing more power to the European Parliament.
The euro may indeed give its members less flexibility, but I do not believe this makes them any less democratic. Ultimately, monetary union is seen as a necessary step in completing the free market.
However, fiscal policy is not something that the EU has any control over. In fact this is one of the euro’s main flaws. Nor does the European Commission or European Parliament have any say over budgets at a national level. In fact, the euro has always lacked the basic elements of a currency.
Now many Europeans are looking forward to the new treaty changes that all member-states but Britain have accepted. This agreement will give more control to the EU over national economies. This will be done with or without Britain.
The message I hear from many continental Europeans on the streets is that the EU cannot continue to placate the UK as they, just like the rest of the 27 member-states, must do their bit to help extricate Europe from its current crisis. After all, the general good of the union is at stake.
Many continental Europeans see Britain as selfish and self-serving. Others feel a true sense of solidarity with other member-states and feel Britain just uses its relationship with the EU for its own economic benefit without the deeper sense of goodwill that many other Europeans feel towards each other.
To put it in another perspective, mainland Australians would not take too kindly to the Tasmanians if they continually asked for exemptions and rebates. Nor would they be too pleased if populism and cheap politics were chosen over sound policy that would benefit the entire country.
The UK will not benefit from continuing with its obstinacy. The Opposition Labour Party has warned Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron not to give in to populism, as have his coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats.
When dealing with 27 nations, with all their individual needs and particular forms of politics, it is often necessary to make do with the little agreement there is in the hope that this can be changed in future. In this sense, the EU is necessarily reactive.
It should be mentioned that EU treaties are often vague and are often amended to the point of rendering them seemingly meaningless. These are then changed when change is the only way out of a crisis.
This is now the case with the euro, in my opinion. The crisis was just what some more avid integrationists needed in order for them to be able to cement the links between Europe’s nations. I doubt the euro founders actually believed it could have lasted in its current form. Change was always on the cards.
Making changes to the 17 eurozone nations’ respective constitutions is aimed at promoting closer integration and avoiding similar short-sighted and reckless spending in future. It will also aim to align economic policy so that each member-state can grow in a uniform way. Setting a limit on the amount of indebtedness that each eurozone member can go into is far from undesirable in the eyes of many Europeans from the more Europhile states.
This brings me back to the member-states with Eurosceptic tendencies, Britain being the most prominent amongst these.
It is worth noting that England still tends to have visions of grandeur. It still suffers from post-colonial syndrome and views itself, in the words of an English friend of mine, as “better than that”. The assumption is that Britain, with all its past glory, cannot possibly fraternise with pesky Europeans.
One must exclude the other nations that make up the United Kingdom because they tend to be more pro-European. In fact, one of the most important features of the Treaty of Lisbon was that any break-away state from an EU member-state would remain a member of the EU.
Clearly, this would have positive implications for Scotland. Being a member of anything European was never going to sit well with the English.
The UK only joined in 1973 when its leaders realised how far behind it was falling when compared to the economic growth that the six founding members were experiencing. Ever since the UK’s accession, it has been a reluctant partner.
Although many politicians generally try to score cheap points at the expense of the EU, the EU and the euro in themselves are not a bad idea. In fact, the EU has guaranteed stability and peace for much longer than even the biggest optimists had hoped for.
Britain may contribute financially to the EU, just as every other member-state does, but it also derives great benefit from it.
Finally, Colin Teese mentions Britain’s consternation at the “uncontrolled migrations of people” that it is subject to, presumably in large part due to its membership of the EU. The fact that Britain is not a signatory to the 1985 Schengen Agreement guarantees it the right to control its borders. Unlike much of the rest of Europe, it still has border controls between it and the rest of the EU.
The idea of freedom of movement only applies to EU citizens, and even then their movements in and out of the country are tracked. In reality, the free movement of EU citizens is the opposite of a problem.
In fact, one of the biggest problems in any free market is the lack of labour mobility. This is one element of a free market that the EU can never fully achieve, partly due to linguistic differences that make it harder for workers to freely move from one member-state to the other.
The EU suffers from a severe lack of labour mobility. Only 2.3 per cent of the overall EU population lives in a different member-state.
Furthermore, Britain’s EU migrants have had a largely positive influence and have contributed to the economy while not disturbing the social fabric. Statistics show that eastern Europeans from the new member-states are leaving the UK and Ireland in their droves and have been doing so for over four years now.
This shows that there is at least some labour mobility in the EU which allows economies to re-shape themselves in line with demand. It also shows that inter-state migration is of a temporary nature.
It is of course politically correct for politicians and the media to criticise the European migrants in Britain but it would be anathema to most Britons to criticise migrants from countries outside the EU. As a result, the imagined problem of EU migrants is magnified in the British media, but it is really code for displeasure at the presence of non-EU migrants.
In a country where exaggerated political-correctness is very much the norm, one must be good at reading between the lines. Indeed, the “Polish plumber” is often used as fair game in the anti-EU/anti-immigration camp.
My point is that everything needs to be looked at in perspective. One must take history into account as well as extreme media bias and the fact that the Australian reader will mostly be exposed to the English-speaking media which somewhat limits the number of points of view that one can be exposed to.
The English-speaking media is invariably Eurosceptic and does not offer the insight into the continental European mind that the non-English language media can offer. This can limit ones perspective quite significantly.
Julian Falzon is a News Weekly subscriber from Victoria, Australia, who is currently living in Alicante, Spain. This is a longer version of his opinion piece that appeared in the printed edition of News Weekly.