The plan to tackle the eurozone crisis will only render ordinary people more powerless.
Democracy went down in a blaze of glory last week. Both the German Bundestag and our own House of Commons put up one hell of a fight against the dying of the light. Maybe history will record that fact in an elegy on the demise of the great 18th-century experiment in government by the people: they were eloquent to the end. Because at the end, eloquence was all they had.
Trying to hold back the resurgence of oligarchy – the final dismantling of democratic responsibility in the governing of Europe – has been looking pretty hopeless for a long time. That eruption of excellent rhetoric and faultless argument which sprang to the defence of the rights of the governed (and in Germany’s case, of constitutional legality) made the loss seem all the more tragic, but no less inevitable.
So this is where we are. The agreed EU “stability union” triumphantly paraded before the media in Brussels will have the power to approve or disapprove budgets of countries in the eurozone – that is, to vet and police them – before they are submitted to the elected parliaments of those countries. In other words, parliaments which are directly mandated by, and answerable to, their own populations will not control the most essential functions of government: decisions on taxation and spending. Even without the ultimate institutions of economic and political union, which still elude the EU, actual power over fiscal policy will be taken from the hands of national leaders. And if, as a voter, you cannot influence your prospective government’s tax and spending policies, what exactly are you voting for?
Britain being outside the eurozone, we will not have to present our fiscal arrangements for authorisation before submitting them to the scrutiny of our legislators (and their constituents). But since our own economic recovery relies so heavily on the stability of the euro, we find ourselves (or at least, George Osborne has found himself) enthusiastically supporting this rape of democratic principle in countries which regard their freedom and self-determination as precious in much the same way, remarkably enough, that free-born Englishmen do.
And among those hapless, soon-to-be-disenfranchised peoples, hatreds have been awakened that the EU was, ironically, designed to bury. The Greeks hugely resent what they consider to be the implicitly racist contempt of the Germans: the political opposition in Athens on both Left and Right rejects the idea of being “bailed out” of a crisis (with all the compliance that entails) that they believe to have been caused by the artificial constraints of euro membership rather than by national character flaws. Even their moderate spokesmen are beginning to characterise Germany’s economic impositions as a revival of its wartime attempt at conquest.
Through Greece’s historical perspective, it is not difficult to read German intentions as world domination by other means. Instead of burying the old enmities and blood feuds, the enforced conditions of the EU have reinvigorated them. When dissatisfied national populations become convinced that their democratic institutions are useless or irrelevant, they will take to the streets. How long before the resentments and the powerlessness ignite and Greece, in its desperation, turns once again to the colonels? Will we see tanks on the streets of Athens at the same time as growing neo-fascist movements in Germany and Italy? And does our own government really believe that we will be safe from the consequences of democratic decline in Europe, just because we are not in the eurozone?
When Angela Merkel warned last week about the possible end of the blessedly long post-war peace in Europe, she meant that the failure of the euro (and thus of the EU project) would precipitate economic chaos and possibly lead to war. But she and her colleagues seem oblivious to the resurgence of hostility that is being brought about by every move closer to “successful” European integration.
Indeed, it is often quite eerie how the statements and mannerisms of EU officials, seemingly so dedicated to being the precise opposite of earlier, infamous generations, end up echoing (or parodying) the more memorable moments of the war-torn 20th century. When the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, proclaimed, “I am pleased to stand before you this morning and confirm that Europe is closer to resolving its financial and economic crisis… We are showing that we can unite in the most difficult of times”, I half expected him to wave a piece of paper in the air and proclaim economic stability in our time.
In reality, everybody’s historical experience stands in the way of the EU economic and political union steamroller. Germany cannot comply with demands that it plunge enthusiastically into a quantitative easing programme – even though that would be one way of supplying the needed bail-out funds for Greece (and Italy, and Spain, and whoever goes belly up next) – because its terrifying collective memory of Weimar inflation puts such an option beyond the pale. And Mrs Merkel, however enthusiastic she may be about curtailing the democratic accountability of her euro-partners, is fully aware of her own electoral vulnerability: there will be no funny money run off the German printing presses even if her economy is probably robust enough now to cope with the consequences.
In an interview last week, George Soros said that this slow-motion train crash of the single currency reminds him of the fall of the Soviet Union. I assume that what he meant was that there was the same sense of inexorability – the inevitable collapse being forestalled by lots of last-ditch reforms and too little, too late measures that only nibbled at the edges of the real problem. The unthinkable remained unthought: this is a system that is inherently flawed, and therefore cannot be made to work in the terms in which it was envisaged.
Far from being an antidote to the ideological delusions of the past century, a trans-national superstate is the same sort of utopian, unnatural, ahistorical folly that earlier generations attempted to foist on the recalcitrant populations of Europe. Its doctrine of “co-operation” is simply coercion by another name. It relies on unswerving belief and enforced conformity, just like all the “year zero” political movements that ended in totalitarianism and terror in the past. The one hope is that the great mass of the people, unlike most of their political leaders, seem to understand all this quite clearly. It remains to be seen whether they will have to go out on the streets to make their case.