Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Euro myths and the French "non"

Lenin, Apostate Windbag, and Meaders - amongst others - have posted their responses to the French verdict on the European constitution. In as far as the "non" verdict was the French recoiling from "Anglo-Saxon" neo-liberalism, they are correct in seeing this as a victory for the left.

However, I'm not sure if it is accurate to see the constitution as somehow introducing the principle of neo-liberal competition.

Rather, what the constitution did was to codify those elements which were drawn from the previous treaties and there are a couple of reasons why people tend not to notice how market-based the European Union always was. One is the CAP, the biggest exception to free-trade in the EU and, probably more importantly, the most noticed.

The other is the behaviour of member states towards EU competition rules. It is, as lenin says, "remarkable that the market and competition should be raised to the status of constitutional precepts" - but going by the previous form of member states, it didn't seem likely that these rules would have been given the status of constitutional precepts in practice.

For instance, one of the neo-liberal EU rules drawn from a previous treaty (Maastricht) was the so-called "stability pact" which decreed that member states that are members of the European Monetary Union should not be able to run budget deficits beyond 5 percent of GDP (or thereabouts; can't remember). The Germans (I think) insisted this rather silly rule was included in the constitution while they were - along with the French (and us, although the stability pact doesn't apply to Britain) - busy breaking it.

What was new in the constitution was not the rules as such but their likely impact in the wake of enlargement - with the French understandably apprehensive about competing with countries with much lower labour costs and a much lower take in corporation tax.

Having said that, I'm still broadly in favour of the EU for a couple of reasons. Lenin correctly points to the woeful lack of democratic principles which one would normally hope to find in any constitution worth the name but it is a paradox of the undemocratic EU that it is, to some extent, a force for democracy in the world, simply because aspiring members have to be democratic to join (witness Turkish reforms, motivated by the prospect of accession). And although its role has been overstated in this, the EU acts as a check on inward-looking, flag-waving nationalism.

I won't even attempt to speculate where the EU goes from here, but in the time-being I hope we'll hear a little less of a few Guardian-liberal myths and misconceptions about it:

  • The ludicrous Polly Toynbee liberal self-loathing take on the EU where anyone who suggests it might not be in our interests to join the Euro or whatever is dismissed as a xenophobic little-Englander. As if you have to advocate the surrender of monetary and fiscal policy to Brussels to prove you're cosmopolitan, or something. Drives me mad that one; I trust we're done with that now?

  • In the same vein, can we dispense with the equally silly idea that it's only the British who pursue their self-interest in the EU? (To read the Guardian sometimes, you'd be forgiven for thinking that all the other member-states do everything out of the goodness of their hearts).

  • The idea that only right-wing loons are opposed to the EU.

  • That the single currency was a good idea. Surely it now has to be accepted that at best it was premature; at worst a fiscal and monetary straight-jacket entirely inappropriate for such a diverse range of economic situations?

The key problem with the EU is that it has been a project driven by elites who haven't really bothered to explain what it is for. That'll have to stop now, surely? I would also hope that one of my own big problems with the EU will now be addressed, which is that we are never given any idea when the project can be considered to have been accomplished. Without that, it's obviously not just me that is very suspicious of the idea of perpetual integration as an end in itself. A United States of Europe is neither feasible or desirable and given this fact, Europe's leaders have to be much clearer about the limits of its competence.

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