The Ambassador from Alabama

Reasons to Be Fearful?

No doubt at this very moment, in the manner of a BBC historical drama about Appeasement, some brave-but-ignored Cassandra at, oh, the Telegraph, is preparing to stub out his cigarette, pat the cat, kiss his wife on both cheeks, put on his trilby and walk out the front door for the last time. The next chiaroscuro scene is in some dismal north London cemetery, and fluttering where the swinging shadow hits the ground, is a newspaper\’s banner headline: \’Blair supports the Euro-constitution\’. Chills the blood, doesn\’t it?

Well, no, it doesn\’t. Life appears to have continued much as normal in the wake of the semi-government-endorsed Giscard convention draft. But just about every Conservative there is – militant \’phobes like milord Ancram for instance – are just convinced that Britain\’s doomed should we sign up for any new European treaties in Rome later this year. Is a cause that Michael Ancram has attached himself to one that should be endorsed by Tories, or is it more likely to be typical, sub-civil service, opportunism, ineptly practised by men who know one thing for sure: that they\’ll never have to account in office for any of these policies? Yes of course it is, and it only takes a moment\’s glance at the \’perils\’ to see that.

This starts being apparent with the lies eurosceptic bastions like the Telegraph are willing to tell. In its leader on the draft published by the Giscard convention, the paper declared that \’the substance of the constitution . . . is that of a unitary state rather than a federation\’. Where? Or for that matter, when? Which is to say, at what point in all of human recorded history has there ever been a unitary state that resembles anything like what the Convention will end up as? Chalk that up to frothing rhetorical inanity, but call the claim in that same editorial that the Giscarded EU member states will have less \’power\’ than the States of the American union just what it is: an utter and complete fib.

In fact, leaving to one side for the moment that the component EU members as currently constituted are sovereign nation states, there can be no doubt but that even the treaty-based structure as amended by the Convention, affords rights to its subscribers undreamt of by the provinces of the American republic. A notable one is – and my does this slay an old sceptical bogey – the right to secede. Try that in Texas.

It is plainly nonsensical to compare either the current relationship between EU member states and the EU, or their possible future one, with that which prevails between American \’States\’ and their federal union. In the latter, the States are entirely dependent catspaws of the centre. This has, fairly famously, been demonstrated in the most conclusive manner possible. All sovereign power in the United States reposes at the federal tier – one people, one nation, one super-dominant electoral voice – whereas in the EU, there is next-to-no \’EU\’. Compare the extent, scope, powers and constitutional legitimacy of the EU (little more than a legal and bureaucratic secretariat for a multi-lateral multi-member international organisation) versus the American government. The comparison is risible, certainly in terms of trying to somehow prove that Washington is far less intrusive than Brussels, because we are patently not comparing like with like. One is a state, the other is not. There are many points of advantage for the American regime when compared to our own, that is to say, to the British state, but there\’s nothing doing if you contrast DC with the Commission, or for that matter, the Commonwealth secretariat, or the ASEAN secretariat. Or whichever other palpably non-state actor you wish, for whatever barmy purpose, to hold up against the American central government. The Telegraph knows this, but seemingly holding their readership in contempt, offer up such pathetic deceptions. This is more than anything else, a mark of intellectual desperation.

The Convention is there to be read so sadly no opportunity this time for mewling claims that the sinister foreigners \’duped\’ the dullard Saxon, by concealing their vile intentions from witless us until it was too late to do anything about it – but next to no one will. Perhaps we don’t as a nation deserve the chance to exercise self-government? That, were one foolish enough to attribute logic to them, would certainly be the inescapable implication of most eurosceptic critiques. Especially given how consistently the public decline to pay any attention to the many \’last chances\’ to save Britain they\’ve been screechingly informed of. In an encouraging sign, the newly dull-as-we-can-be Times forwent the pleasures of panic, and told the story straight.

Never mind that dropping the \’F\’ word hardly meant that our wily agent Sir John Kerr had presumably brainwashed the Presidium into accepting an Anglo-Saxon agenda, The Times took against the Convention, but managed to keep the whole thing in proportion. This disinclination to hysteria meant that they could consider the \’good\’ prospects on offer for Britain from the new Europe. Principally the fact that new boys like Poland are assumed to be at least Blairite (if not as yet Duncan Smithite) in their outlook. Indeed, the sanest way to look at the EU likely to emerge from Silvio Berlusconi\’s attractive prison is: here at last comes an interesting \’variable geometry\’. (The Italian Prime Minister has suggested that EU heads of government should be confined inside the Villa Borghese art gallery in Rome in the manner of a papal conclave, to be let out only ‘when every issue has been resolved’). I say \’interesting\’ because the entire process by which the EU has proceeded since its inception has always been one of multi-lateral diplomacy (i.e. negotiation between sovereign states) – as opposed to, for instance, the imposition of trans-national dictats by a super-national authority. Yet this was, thanks to the limited and static configuration of the players involved, generally a very dull and predictable affair until the British dream of a widened community started being feasible after the end of the Cold War. The genuine federalists recognised this very danger, and have of course tried to outrun this tendency by \’deepening\’ the institutions of the EU, before the wave of new accessions inevitably \’widened\’ things out. The federalists have lost this race (something, sadly, they didn\’t do in the United States).

What we\’re going to end up with very soon is exactly what the small country and federalist critics of Valéry Giscard d\’Estaing allege that he has done: a \’big six\’ stitch up. Those \’big six\’ countries being, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Poland. And it\’s a structure that\’s going to endure for as long as there continues to be an EU i.e. it can cope with the accession of both Turkey and Russia, the only two other European countries that could qualify this elevated status. The reason why this \’constitution\’ is going to stick is that there is nothing the smaller states feel they can do about it: they don’t believe they can stump off and exist outside the EU, and inside it, they simply don\’t have either the individual or collective clout to resist the wishes of this latter-day concert. It should be noted that they are almost certainly right that, to be a small state, and to choose to sit outside the EU, is liable to an uncomfortable and much-bullied lifestyle choice.

So to sum up our nonchalance about M. d\’Estaing: the Convention does not create a \’super-state\’; the EU will remain essentially an arrangement between sovereign states; EU states are sovereign nation-states in the classical fashion; the EU (qua the EU) is not a state, and is not about to become one. You will notice some repetition there, and all I can say is, one can\’t slough off decades of personal euroscepticism overnight. For whilst I do believe that, as a supremely pertinent example, British \’sovereignty\’ is compromised by our being in the EU, what\’s doing that compromising? Why, our sovereign British state, that\’s what. It\’s something that some fanatical theorists of the sovereign state don\’t appear to be able to comprehend, but sovereign states, just like sovereign parliaments, can do with their sovereignty things their fans really don’t like. At the end of the day, this disagreeable business, being in the EU, is evidently not terminal to either Britain, or anything even approaching that level of political toxicity.

Why to Lie

There remains one big eurosceptic – let\’s not call it a \’lie\’ this time, as good people believe it too – contention about the EU. It\’s predicated on the notion that, for Britain vis-à-vis the EU, things are always getting worse. And it cuts dead against my argument that we have nothing irrevocable to worry about in terms of the EU (\’Europe\’ being just one more wrong-headed political course pursued by the British government, and with the right politics can be changed as a public policy choice). Because, this apocalyptic case runs, even if I\’ve sketched out an EU-as-it-is, it\’s soon not going to be: it\’s soon going to be that dreaded super-state. Which is tautological excess for: soon the EU\’s going to at last be the state, and all the former constituent nation-states are going to be reduced to the level of sub-state actors. Poppycock. Moreover, it\’s precisely the sort of poppycock that earns euroscepticism the vote-losing reputation it presently has.

In democratic political discourse there are plenty of grounds for hyperbole. It may well be that it is the best rhetorical media for presenting a range of political alternatives to a mass electorate. Then again, if sufficient sophistication is presumed of the voting public, then so too should they be expected to know the \’rules of the game\’, and that e.g. frenzied denunciations of the EU and all its works, are simply dumb-show, with as elaborate and formalised rituals as any Japanese play. The words in themselves are not to be taken at face value, rather, it is what offering such squibs are meant to suggest that influences the knowing demos. As I say, heaps and heaps of ways to account for the characteristic bulls**t engaged in by British eurosceptic politicians. The most likely explanation I fear is that eurosceptic politicians are those admirable primitives who believe what they say. That what they say is incredible in just about every instance is dismally obvious.

Take the \’super-state\’. A super-state ruling, most probably, 25 previously independent nation-states? Never happened in the modern era, such precedents as they are, are all pre or early modern assimilation by European nation-states of non-nation states. In most explanations of how that world-historical process came to pass, the explanation generally given is that, the modern (i.e. the thing made manifest in late C17th/early C18th) European nation-state proved to be irresistable to all other agencies of mass human organisation then on the go. And that\’s the way that things have stayed until today. The argument about the EU is that either, a new predator has evolved, capable of consuming even European nation-states, or that, well what? That some or all of the extant European nation states, which have acceded to the EU, are old and senescent and in the process of naturally or otherwise dying off? That\’s liable to be true only in the sense that any supposed \’nation\’ or community or people, or quintessential non-state entity is capable of being subsumed by a modern state.

This is precisely the lesson of why the more than 300-year old European-model state won the international Darwinian battle for survival and displaced all its competitors. That\’s the truth that lies behind the ability of the French state to subsume such Corsicans, Basques or whoever are within it, or of the German to subsume Hanover, or Bavaria, or of the UK to incorporate England and Scotland and so on. Racial, linguistic, religious, \’cultural\’ and ethnic groups are merely abstract political ideas, the state is concrete reality. So just as France could tomorrow literally incorporate the former Belgium, and all the \’Belgians\’, this doesn\’t disprove either the sense of French (or Belgian) sovereignty, still less the idea of the modern nation-state itself. What it does is tell us that power in the contemporary world is still most effectively exercised through the agency of the (now traditional) state. What does that mean in terms of the relationship between the European Union and its member states? Inescapably this: the EU, unless it becomes a state, is constitutionally incapable of overawing even the meanest member state. More exactly still, the EU is not, by definition, going to be able to become a state in its own right, until it has denuded its members of their statehood. This has not happened. It isn\’t happening. And it\’s not going to happen. What is happening is that, despite itself, British European policy – which is a species of our foreign policy – is in imminent danger of coming right despite itself.

How to Win Without Really Trying

To illustrate that the infrastructure of the British state is not about to go away – the key precondition for the transferral of true sovereign power inside Britain from London to Brussels – all that\’s needed are a few easy questions. How will the \’EU\’ (and I\’m sorry to keep using scare quotes, but the EU constantly described by eurosceptics plain doesn\’t exist, and to use their language to mis-describe the world as it is doesn\’t make any sense to me) compel a subsidiary political entity (e.g. the former UK) to do something it absolutely doesn\’t want to? Patently, because Britain hasn\’t ceased to be, it can\’t. As there are no plausible grounds for saying that the British state is about to go away, the EU\’s elevation to casual nation-state crusher won\’t be happening for a while.

Again, what would \’they\’ do if we (Britain) decided to resile from some supposedly pan-EU policy? What should reach out and grab anyone who has read a solitary word about any state or combination of states outside or before the European Union is that, there is no \’they\’. There\’s the Commission in Brussels, but the idea that this sub-state actor has the real stuff of power capable of superseding that of the British-state-in-Britain is ludicrous. To say, \’but what about France and Germany acting together?\’ well doh! That\’s the reality of power as well: it was always thus, and will always be thus. The greater combination of nation-states will overawe the lesser combination or singularity. This is hardly a state of affairs unique to the advent of the EU.

The relevant comparison here is with the Irish Free State. Eurosceptics claim that the UK is outgunned on all fronts by a political behemoth aiming to curtail our sovereign independence, and if necessary to achieve this juridical primacy through brute economic coercion, and, who knows, one day possibly though military action. This is exactly the set of circumstances that southern Ireland found herself in, inside the inter-war British Commonwealth, save for two things: they really did find themselves in this pickle, except for the fact that it was, from the point of view of Dublin\’s sovereignistes, a hundred times worse a pickle than that. The constitutional threat wasn\’t looming: it had already happened, for even post-statute of Westminster dominion status did nothing to alter the fact that the fount of constitutional legitimacy was the Crown (and not as the southern Irish wished it to be, which was themselves alone); the economic threat was real and deadly – the Free State both lacked its own currency, and was, through its own fool fault, subject to a trade war by the world\’s largest trading bloc; and, the territory of Eire, from independence until 1938 included unwanted, non-Irish military bases, and then, during World War II, the Free State several times faced the very real threat of military conquest by its Commonwealth partner Britain, solely because Dublin wasn\’t going along with the Empire\’s common foreign and security policy, to coin a phrase. What, then, is the excessively silent dog when one substitutes Britain and the EU for inter-war Eire and her relationship with the Commonwealth? There is, in the current set-up, no \’London\’.

There\’s no comparable political centre seeking to set collective political goals for the periphery, there\’s no-one benignly shepherding the sheep towards a common sets of goals. To claim that \’Brussels\’, the mere location of a bunch of politically under-capitalised secretariats, is performing this role is infantile nonsense. The nearest we get in this game to a \’London\’, to a player all the other players have to relate with before they individually relate with each other, is, of course, you-know-where. Actually, if you\’re a British Conservative eurosceptic you\’re likely to be so sodding silly that you don\’t know where: Washington, DC, dimbo.

The EU has worked because it has not been a racket run by one power. And prior to the EU, the EEC worked because the Franco-German-American axis was irresistible. The marvellous danger to the project is that, entirely falsely, a personified EU presidency will crystallise and publicise what is presently diffuse and obscure. A larger EU is going to be run much the way Europe has always been politically \’run\’, by the big powers making the decisions, and the little ones going along with that. Giscard\’s convention sets that in stone. But if the EU gets a \’president\’, this, and this alone, has the power to suggest something totally wrongheaded to the British public: that rather than being a competing power in the European system, we will have become a province of a European empire. That, however inaccurate a diagnosis it will be, is the condition in which we will leave the EU. Or just when circumstances far removed from being the consequence of our inept diplomacy have finally rendered the EU into being something we could cheerfully stay within, it might make itself rhetorically intolerable. Our lesson from this? In democracies, rhetoric that the public appreciates is the only thing that matters. What they apprehend is the reality they act under, everything else, even the truth, isn\’t worth a bucket of warm spit.

– Christopher Montgomery

Read more by Christopher Montgomery