Europe – fear or hope?

Despite considering myself to be pro-European and indeed pro-EU, I find myself actually quite pleased (with some important reservations) that the constitution has been rejected by the French and Dutch referendums. In fact it will be something of a relief if that document gets sent to the shredders in Brussels this summer.

Why a relief? Because for the past year I’ve been wondering about the British referendum and how to marry my enthusiasm for the European project with the wretched constitution it produced. I mean, have you actually read the 300 plus pages of the thing?

The constitution reflects the worst of the EU – the torturous language and unwieldy length are the product of the system of inter-governmental compromises managed by (and there is no way of avoiding the Eurosceptic term) unaccountable bureaucrats. It is a product of the culture of the EU which, again, has emerged from the very worst of the continent’s legal and political systems, dominated by French institutionalism, German pettiness and the notion of an elite ‘political class’.

These criticisms of the EU may not have been the important factors in the minds of the French and Dutch voters but the rejection of the constitution does offer those of us who are critical supporters of the European project a chance to start to put forward an alternative vision of European integration that we don’t have to apologise for.

Sceptical supporters of Europe should feel liberated by the defeat of the constitution – no longer weighed down by the need to make excuses for the work of Prodi and D’Estaing and with a chance to put forward an alternative model based on the best of the EU.

And what is the best of the EU? Without doubt the creation of a single market has been of huge benefit not only to companies who are freed up from the red tape of pre-Maastricht import-export regulations but to consumers. Catch that cheap flight to Barcelona, spend those Euros which you have leftover from your weekend in France. Maybe you will spot in the local paper an interesting job in Spain, get the job and buy a house in Seville all eased by the fact that you are a citizen of the European Union, living and working in your Union.

But it is not only the modern comforts of a single market that are achievements of European integration. Visit some Lakes and rivers in Eastern Europe, polluted for decades by the heavy industry of the Stalinist regimes, now cleaned up by EU projects funded largely out of the pockets of the wealthier parts of Europe. Visit some of the poorer parts of the continent where retraining programmes are trying to offer people a better future in a continent where borders are increasingly irrelevant to job-seekers.

There may be little point in trying to create a comprehensive and uniform social welfare system for Europe but there is much to be said for sharing Europe’s public resources to help the poorer regions of the continent. How could anyone on the left not like the idea of a European redistribution of wealth with the tax euros of the Surrey stockbroker helping the unemployed shipbuilders of Gdansk get reskilled?

The best of the EU was also seen in Kiev when the democratic revolutionaries knew they had the Union on their side and knew that if they succeeded there was a door to the West open to them – a reminder of the progressive role the EU played in assisting the new democracies in 1989.

The tragic failure of the EU is that few outside those immediately involved know of these projects. The EU has allowed its social policies to be represented as interfering and restrictive (which in some cases they are) rather than progressive attempts to give opportunities to parts of Europe that have been neglected – largely by national governments (which often they are). But then a body which has rarely sought the consent of its citizenry can have no complaints when it is seen as a distant and petty bureacracy. Its easy (and right) to ridicule the tabloid campaigns to ‘Save Our British Banger’ – but the EU has created fertile ground for a reactionary nationalist opposition by its constant failure to root itself in popular democracy and its arrogant assumption that people will welcome its paternalism even if they didn’t ask for it.

A progressive social policy in Europe can only work with a genuine European identity, with the solidifying of the notion that Europe is one community and that it is the duty of the stronger and wealthier parts of that community to help the weaker sections. Is that European identity taking shape? I think it is but it is obviously still weaker than the national identity and will be for a long time to come. Nonetheless a new generation of people who are more familiar with the cultures, economies and languages of the continent than any before them, is emerging.

The left needs to articulate a vision of a democratic EU for this new generation and that means much less emphasis on inter-governmental institution-building and turning to popular politics which place the power for decision making in the hands of a real European Parliament. By all means let us have a Europe-wide government (with a clearly defined role) and even EU president but they should emerge from an elected body and be held to account by a constitution which places its emphasis on the rights of citizens not the reach of institutions.

A new vision of the EU also needs to put down some clear boundaries on areas in which the Union will not venture into. Too often matters are left vague. The EU has shown an appetite to enter into all areas but we don’t need the EU to decide on what counts as ‘real chocolate’ and all the rest of the tabloid-feeding regulatory nonsense. Fencing off clear areas that will be left to national or regional governments is vital if fears of ‘takeover’ are to be addressed and it should have been a basic early task for the pioneers of European intergration to ask the people – what do you want integrating?

Now is the moment that pro-European critics of the EU, who support the idea of a united Europe but have been, like so much of the citizenry, alienated from the actual politics of the process, to start to raise these questions and create an alternative way forward. Instead of ‘defending Brussels’ the left should be attacking it for failing us and missing a great opportunity.

The opportunity is still there because a generation of EasyJet-flying, capuccino drinking, German sausage munching, Champions League watching, Alpine skiing, Euro clubbing, city-break enjoying Europeans are not about to return to the pre-Maastricht world of visas and only two bottles of wine per person Sir.

But before I start to sound too optimistic about the post-referendum Europe, there are some warning signs that need to be heeded too.

There were obviously many good reasons to vote No to the constitution and I may have been tempted to give two-fingers to Prodi and d’Estaing myself but many of the voices heard from the ‘No’ side reflect another Europe – the Europe of reaction.

This is the Europe where protectionist French farmers find common cause with anti-globalisation activists. The Europe that turned its back on Iraq (before the war and even more shamefully after) now also turns it back on Turkey for reasons which, despite all protestations to the contrary, go little beyond racism. Its the expansion of the West German hostility to Ossies now finding echoes in complaints from London tradesmen about Polish plumbers. Its a reactionary anti-Americanism that crosses from far-left to far-right. Its the Europe of anti-immigration racists and leftists worried about the spread of Fast Food restaurants.

Since September 11, its not been hard to detect a mood in Western Europe to pull down the blinds and wish the rest of the world would just go away. If it wasn’t for the meddling Yanks and the looney Muslims we could all just get on with our nice quiet European lives like we used to do. This Europe’s slogan is Could everyone just please leave us alone? These are the people for whom the description ‘Fortress Europe’ was not a criticism of the EU but a positive policy proposal.

Who can blame the citizens of ‘New Europe’ for wondering if the whole idea they were sold of the ‘common home’ was a big lie? After all European integration may not have enjoyed huge popularity but it flowed on without much dissent throughout the seventies and eighties until the East Europeans turned up and then suddenly the Westerners, of left and right, started saying “hold on a minute, you want us to start helping out that lot?”

Who can blame the East Europeans for wondering if the western half of the continent was actually perfectly happy with the cold war and welcomed the collapse of the Berlin Wall merely because it marked end of its guilty conscience over the division of Europe and its fears of Russian nukes but not at all as the opportunity to extend the hand to the victims of five decades of state repression and enforced poverty?

Without wishing to be alarmist how can we expect this reactionary Europe to respond to a serious economic downturn and a rise in unemployment and even more insecurity? Behind their blinds they have already found their scapegoats for the complications of the post-cold war world. They blame the immigrants, the Americans, the Muslims, the Israelis, ‘globalisation’ and the Ossies for ‘messing things up’. Who will they blame for a recession?

These are the people that EU hacks are thinking of when they hold their three day workshops on the need to address people’s ‘insecurities’. Yet the EU elite has pandered to such reaction by adopting the crass anti-Americanism of the Luddite anti-globos, by building obstacles in the way of East Europeans and by pretending that the EU can somehow be an island of never-changing stablity in a rapidly changing world and, above all, by pedalling the lie that Islamist terrorism can be best dealt with by ignoring or appeasing it.

Part of the European left finds itself sinking into that reactionary mire where it shares a stinking nihiism with the far-right. The task for those of us who see Europe as a potentially powerful element in the globalisation of democracy and rights is not to offer the illusion of a comfort blanket of security but a hopeful and optimistic outlook that accepts we live in a time of enormous upheaval but sees within it great opportunities for advancement.

Thanks, in large part, to the best of the EU you could set off in your car from Inverness and drive to Kiev, pausing to flash your passport just a few times, hardly having to bother changing from the common currency for large stretches of your journey and most importantly of all – never once crossing the border from a free, democratic country into a repressive dictatorship. That journey was a pipe dream just twenty years ago.

Shouldn’t the left’s vision be of a similar journey sometime in the future passing through the great European city of Istanbul, into a free Kurdistan, pausing for tea in Baghdad, a light lunch in democratic Tehran before enjoying a night on the town in Jerusalem with some Palestinian and Israeli friends?

Shouldn’t we be making that ‘pipe dream’ a part of our vision of an outward-looking, confident Europe’s role in the world?

I think we should and to do so the democratic left will have to take on the dark fears that exist in Europe, the reactionaries on the left and the right and the failed ‘political class’ that has led the EU to the current crisis.