Left outside the door of the European Union

Geraint Talfan Davies says we must end the UK’s determination to be the awkward squad

European summits are often over-dramatised by the UK’s press. There is the implication of a superlative in the very word ‘summit’, the ceremonial greeting of heads of state, the motorcades, the tension of negotiation, deals done at the dead of night by tired ministers and officials. All this is usually accompanied by a last minute resolution of the seemingly irreconcilable, followed by spinning press conferences. But it would be hard to level the charge of over-dramatisation on this occasion.

At stake was the future of the world economy, and, potentially, the most radical peaceful change in the governance of Europe since the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire. And it would be hard not to be intensely disappointed at the outcome, on no less than four counts:

  • The continued lack of decisive steps to shore up the continent’s finances in the short term, including Germany’s continued unwillingness to allow full-scale intervention by the European Central Bank, and the bank’s own agreement with that line.
  • The absence of a plan to encourage economic growth across Europe, to accompany greater rigour in the management of national finances.
  • The prospect of new tougher rules for eurozone countries that will make it very difficult to provide such a growth stimulus in future.
  • Britain’s obvious and total isolation, on grounds – defence of the City of London – that look straightforward but become more flimsy the more they are examined.

Such reasons for gloom are only compounded by the smug pleasure of euro-sceptic politicians and press, and the dispirited reaction of those who have supported the European project. The former salivate at the prospect of the UK’s departure from Europe, the latter bite their nails as they worry that the departure is now more possible.

It is understandable that some of our exasperated European partners should breathe a sigh of relief at the prospect of seeing their difficult neighbour pack up and go. For too long we have been Europe’s awkward squad. In the circumstances, we should not be surprised that the service upon the UK – self-service is more accurate – of a kind of national ASBO might seem, to many, to be overdue.

As Nye Bevan said at the thought of a Labour conference contriving to send a British Foreign Secretary ‘naked into the conference chamber’: “And you call that statesmanship. I call it an emotional spasm.” What would he have said if the Foreign Secretary was left outside the door?

David Cameron’s battle was lost long before he reached Brussels. As was pointed out at a conference in Cardiff, and reported here last week, countries that want the empathy of others in moments of difficulty have to build up a credit balance in the good times – a kind of Keynesianism of manners rather than money. But instead the Prime Minister has both abandoned potential mainstream allies in European centre-right parties, and preferred to lecture the eurozone from a distance.

Yet what right have we to do so? A country that sees ‘muddling through’ as a virtue, and thinks intellectual coherence in public affairs an alien continental habit, is hardly in a position to criticise the rest of Europe for insufficient rigour in thinking through the Euro issue. A country that, notwithstanding devolution, has embodied a mindset more centralised even than France, is hardly in a position to lecture other countries on the virtues of subsidiarity and self-determination.

In all our time in, first, the EEC and then the EU we have given the impression of being reluctant members of the club. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan were the first to attempt renegotiation, in order to justify a referendum that would salve Labour’s divisions. Margaret Thatcher was even more bullish, but successful, in renegotiation, while giving succour to the Eurosceptics in her own party who attempted to skewer John Major. Even David Cameron this weekend has spoken about “the bits of Europe that suit Britain”, as if this were an a la carte restaurant, preferably serving very small portions.

In his magisterial survey of Britain’s relationship with Europe – This Blessed Plot – the late Hugo Young contrasted the post-war makers of the new Europe, who saw their creation as a triumph, with a very different British mindset:

“For Britain, by contrast, the entry into Europe was a defeat: a fate she had resisted, a necessity reluctantly accepted, the last resort of a once great power, never for one moment a climactic or triumphant engagement with the construction of Europe. This has been integral in the national psyche, perhaps only half articulated since 1973. The sense of the Community as a place of British failure – proof of Britain’s failed independence, site of her failed domination…”

And this mentality has been nurtured, often mendaciously, by large sections of the press who have sustained a barrage of emotional criticism of European institutions, with a constant implication of British superiority. It has polluted a legitimate debate. Only a few weeks ago, at an IWA conference on regeneration a questioner from the floor bemoaned the inability of some local firms to win contracts, casually blaming it all on Brussels, as if this were an incontrovertible truth. Expert speakers on the panel reminded him that the problem lay as much with the actions of Welsh civil servants and their legal advisers as with anything emanating from the EU.

Beyond Wales the little Englander mentality in full spate is not a pretty sight. It is backward looking. It is often as much anti-government as anti-Europe, a rejection of European social democracy. It is a distorted view of the world and a distorted view of the UK’s clout within it. Even financial commentators are recognising that the British veto has not even guaranteed the very security for the City of London that it was designed to achieve.

Of course, the institutions of the EU are far from perfect – as are our own. When he was a EU commissioner Neil Kinnock struggled hard for internal reform, but had to leave much unfinished business. However, these shortcomings, like those of any human institution, do not necessarily undermine the fundamental arguments for the EU’s existence. These include it being a guarantor of European peace, an immense single market that contributes to growth, European-wide regulation that levels playing fields and helps both consumers and citizens. In short, the European Union provides a necessary pooling of sovereignty that allows us to be more effective in a globalised world.

These powerful fundamentals will still be valid arguments for close European cooperation in Europe whether the Euro survives or not. The potential for calamity is dangerously large. Wales, at the wrong end of economic league tables, has powerful additional reasons for wanting the understanding of Europe. It will be interesting to see how the report of Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry into inward investment takes account of our new situation. In Scotland it will be surprising if Alex Salmond does not find a way of playing the debacle to his advantage.

The consequences of the last few days are unpredictable, both for the 17 countries in the eurozone and all 27 members of the EU. Whatever happens Britain must remain at the conference table. We will still need empathic European friends, not merely disillusioned colleagues. We will still need to be influential and to be seen to be influential in Europe by the rest of the world. Otherwise every country of the UK is diminished.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chairman of the IWA.

7 thoughts on “Left outside the door of the European Union

  1. Surely the most recent exploits of UK politicians in Europe should be enough to convince many sceptical Welsh voters that the future of our small country lies as far away from Westminster as possible. Whether it be Cameron’s attempts to once again protect the financial institutions in London, as mentioned above, or the nauseating behaviour of another Conservative MP in a French ski resort, these are just the latest incidents that emphasise the huge cultural chasm between the UK and Wales, and of course Scotland.

    For several years now Alex Salmond has been slowly but surely establishing relationships with politicians and businesses from a wide range of backgrounds and is now about to take Scotland on to the next logical level. I am confident he will succeed. This, of course, has all sorts of implications for us Welsh. It is time for us to decide whether we want to continue as a pseudo country (the majority of people outside the UK think Wales is an English region) or to take destiny into our own hands and become a real country with all that this entails.

    We are the sick man of the UK economy and -rest assured -Westminster politics has no serious plans to change this. However, as the recently published report “The Flotilla Effect“ pointed out, there are plenty of countries of a similar size to Wales in Europe that are doing perfectly well on their own. One need look no further than Slovenia, with all of 2 million inhabitants, and a GDP per capita that is even lower than ours. It won’t happen automatically, of course. A clever politician such as Alex Salmond is needed, to ask the Welsh public whether it still wants to spend billions on defence every year, take part in wars all over the globe or support corrupt financial institutions. Our future as a nation can only lie within a close network of European, mostly small countries, where we learn to play the diplomacy and marketing game in order to ultimately shape our own destiny. Either we accept this, or continue to be slaves to an ageing post-imperialist, anti-European system where Wales is little more than a glorified English region. Wales has the necessary foundations, it now needs the courage.

  2. The EU’s biggest failing is its total lack of democratic accountability. Take the European Commission – its members are appointed in secret deals behind closed doors rather than by the people whom its laws directly affect. Britain’s EU Commissioner, Baroness Ashton, has never stood for public office in her life.

    The European elite have a total disregard for the views of the peoples of Europe. That’s why it has forced unelected technocratic governments on Italy and Greece and now wants to control how countries raise and spend their own taxes within the new fiscal union.

    Don’t be seduced by the idea of an independent Wales in Europe. As much as I’d like Wales to have more control over its own affairs, Brussels would certainly restrict Welsh sovereignty far more than Westminster. It would be a case of out of the firing pan and into the fire.

  3. Other than for the Welsh nationalists who are given more time than their popularity deserves on BBC CYMRU/S4C the ordinary people probably support OUR Prime Minister in opposing the French/German “stich up” in Europe. What HOPE would a poor and insignificant country like Wales have in a stand alone position in Europe, especially in times like this when the “paymaster” is beginning to flex it muscles and dictate terms to southern Europe on spending/taxation etc etc. The money we get back from Europe which has been wasted in Wales is in actuality our OWN money, or in truth the English as the UK is second largest, after Deutchsland in funding the cess pit in Brussels. The accounts for EU haven’t been “signed off” for years and our brave Lord Kinnock “sacked” a whistleblower who tried to tell the truth. The Welsh politicians who have gone there have “filled their boots” to an embarrasing level, whilst the rest of us shiver in our homes. As the late and great Nicholas Ridley stated “Europe is a German racket” and he lost his job but he was right. We might have well given up in 1940 as many of leaders of PC wanted, however we fought and saved the French/Germans from themselves, but not 6 million Jews who died in the attempt to create a “unified” europa run from Berlin. We should trade with Europe and nothing more and send back illegal immigrants by dropping them off the French coast. Our whole historical institutions have been based on a Sovereign and Sovereign Parliament which is elected by the people and it’s easy to undestand where “accountability” rests, but not in the swamp at present.

  4. David Cameron had no choice. If he had agreed there would have been a new European treaty. He could not then have resisted holding a referendum on the treaty. He has been under immense pressure from his party for not holding a referendum already. A referendum would have been held and lost. A referendum would also have been necessary in Ireland. It would have been lost there too. By forcing an inter-governmental pact rather than a new treaty, Cameron saved the EU. He could not pre-announce his veto because of the Lib Dems in his Cabinet so he had to pretend it was all a last-minute thing. He could never have had any intention of allowing a new treaty.

    Meanwhile the inter-governmental pact is a dead letter. It will not save the Euro and I doubt if it will ever take effect. All very sad and I hope the great European movement can survive in an appropriate form.

  5. Some very strong thoughts on what to do with immigrants, Howell. I’m not sure everybody would agree with you there! Isn’t that the kind of attitude Germany had several decades ago? One other thing. I think you’ll find, by the way, that Germans today are fighting tooth and nail for Europe not due to any dubious reasons, but because they feel more secure as part of an unified Europe; in this way the very atrocities of the past will thus not be able to repeat themselves. It’s a shame people don’t talk more about Europe’s role in creating and preserving peace.

  6. Alun Jones. Not strong views at all, but probably the mainstream though of the average UK citizen. The comparison you make with 1933-45 is wrong as the Germans killed their own citizens, many with distinguished war service in 1914-18. The whole set-up of immigration in this country, particularly since 1997 has been a disgrace, in that we have taken on board a whole “underclass” who are fiddling the system, that was set up of people with long history of working in UK. I now see in Cowbridge on saturday “immigrants” selling the Big Issue which must be some kind of joke. We are regarded as a “soft touch”, whilst the way our state institutions treat people who have worked/played the game is nothing short of scandalous and we need a STRONG leader to put things right. Part of that process is to end the starry view of European structures and get the hell out of them and back the unitary state called the UNITED KINGDOM. The German state is a beneficiary of European “integration” because it has the protestant work ethic, and has endured great relative harsdship in controlling costs/public expenditure whilst the Greeks/Italians etc etc have gone mad. The factor that could cause wars is the financial discipline being imposed on the greeks etc etc, by the people’s who ENJOY discipline in its widest sense. The idea quite frankly that sending Lord and Lady Lady Kinnock/Baroness Ely/Wayne David et al to Brussels and filling their boots nicely is a contribution to creating and preserving peace is a JOKE. I am not against immigrant as two ladies who came to UK from Uganda following Amin’s expulsion were interviewed about time in Wales and both have gone on to be highly qualified and valuable members of society. The same for for Jewish people who left Europe in the last century, and lived in pretty poor condition but look where their children/grandchildren are today and how we have greatly benefitted from having such people in our society. All creations by man that wish to over centralise eventually have a greater propensity to split that organically grown institutions that have capacity to adapt to change of circumstances. Look how the UK has changed in 100 years and is continuing to adapt, i.e devolution and its probably overturn in next 25 years.

  7. I could be wrong but I would guess from Howell Morgan’s comments that he is at least 70 years old. Whatever his age, he is living in the past. He feels victimised both by our representatives in Brussels and by immigrants into the UK. He regards the UK as ‘organic’ but not Europe or Wales. His attitude to the Germans is 50 years out of date. Nostalgia is natural to some people but they should not confuse it with analysis nor their prejudices with facts. The EU has taken some wrong turns and is currently in difficulty. It can only be saved and European prosperity maintained by goodwill and a willingness to work with neighbours. Dyspeptic attitudes appropriate to 1940 will not help.

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