Continental Drift

Clare Short, ex-international development secretary, has been thinking about the European Union and comes up with some interesting conclusions.

In the article entitled We must stop the drive towards a superstate she observes

Tony Blair is driven more by posture than consideration of the crucial details of proposed EU powers.


Mr Brown has rightly started to argue that there is too much regulation coming out of Brussels and that a firm line should be drawn that prevents any moves to integrate tax systems or social security.

Cynics with an appreciation of internal Labour ministerial alliances might be inclined to say she would say that but that would be to miss the political wood for the personal trees.

The conclusion I draw is that we need much more than new constitutional arrangements in Europe. The debate in Britain has been painted far too much as a battle between Little Englanders and the rest. But the reality is that pro-Europeans are driving a project that leads inevitably to a superstate, which most of us don’t want. But those who value a single market and oppose complete integration lack a coherent analysis of the proper role of the EU, and thus constantly end up on the back foot.

I think I may be one of these people Clare Short refers to since I think there are merits in the single market but am wary of complete European political integration. I may also lack a coherent analysis of the proper role of the EU, though the article has prompted me to make a stab at what that role should be.

Any debate on European co-operation should begin with a recognition that historically Europe is a continent of warmongers. Multilateral bodies which lessen the liklihood of war breaking out are therefore a good thing.

I’m also in favour of making trade between the members of such a body easier. Getting rid of tariffs, customs, local taxes and all the rest of the measures which discouraged trade was a progressive policy and has made us all richer.

I don’t have any ideological problems with swapping imperial measures for metric ones either if this makes things easier, though I confess I still think in terms of miles, pints, stones and yards.

What does bother me is the assumption that one size fits all. That a single interest rate, set in Germany, from the Highlands to the Balkans is neccessarily right. Also that we need a common political and social policy.

Another problem is the sclerosis which inevitably sets in when a large body of disparate membership tries to do anything quickly. Political intrigue and voting alliances irrelevent to the issue to be decided are a feature of such organisations. We’ve seen that inability to act quickly often enough in the EU for alarm bells to ring.

Like many other people who lack lots of free time I’ve often been guilty of ignoring the articles in the newspapers which covered EU developments, preferring to skip over the reports of the decisions of bodies, the functions of which I’ve never fully understood. Clare Short reminds me that things have been developing apace since I last seriously considered the function of the EU.

The aspiration to a common foreign and security policy is increasingly unrealistic after the disagreements on Iraq. And unless we are aiming for a superstate, co-operation on foreign policy should be confined to informal consultation.

I just can’t see how our continent, divided as it is into so many nations and points of view, can have a joint foreign policy. Germany and France share a common civil law outlook and geographical position at the heart of Europe. They are also immeasurably better off being friends than enemies considering the last 200 years of history but to go from that to thinking we can get all Europeans to agree on a single foreign policy is folly.

I think Clare Short is on to something when she says

The future I see is an EU slimmed down to run the single market; and a Commission revamped with efficient and fraud-free financial management systems. The euro will stand or fall on the quality of the economic management that underpins it

That model of European integration is achievable and therefore more sensible than an attempt to build a body which corrals all the different nations of the continent into one body with a single political voice.

My prediction is that if the EU overeaches itself it will end up like the other multinational bodies that tried the same thing in Europe – the Austrian and Ottoman Empires, the Third Reich and more recently the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but that if it confines itself to making inter-European co-operation easier it will deservedly last as an institution