The European Union has cracked. Good.
You don’t have to be a fan of swivel-eyed Eurosceptic Tories to hope that Cameron’s veto signals a return of public politics.
The European Union has cracked. Good.
The breaking of the EU at an all-night summit last week, where British prime minister David Cameron vetoed changes to the EU Lisbon Treaty, is a healthy sign that politics can assert itself over the slavish routines of Euroland. Until this crack occurred, the EU had been using the full force of statecraft to deny new facts and to enshrine failed doctrines in a world where reality had changed.
Still, over the next few weeks, there will be a concerted establishment campaign to depoliticise the split in the EU and to paper over the cracks with the bureaucratic pieties and conceits at which the EU excels. Quick out of the gate on Sunday was Lord Paddy Ashdown, a serially unelected panjandrum and one-time UN viceroy of Bosnia, who accused Cameron of ‘acting as the leader of the Conservative Party, not the prime minister of Britain’.
In Ashdown’s view, Cameron has committed an act of treachery because he listened to rebel Conservative MPs who pose a threat to his majority in parliament. Ashdown argued: ‘It all depends what happens next. If we can act in a sensible fashion as a government that puts Britain’s interest first rather than 81 MPs in the Conservative Party, that begins to rebuild some of the damage done on Thursday, that uses our influence to get back into Europe, then we can stabilise this thing. But it’s going in the wrong direction now and people should understand that very, very clearly.’
The struggle for public politics, openly declared and contested positions, over technocratic fixes made behind the closed doors of EU offices has begun. Whether you are a supporter of swivel-eyed Tory Eurosceptics or not, the sides in this conflict are clear: politics done in public or more bureaucratic stitch-ups done in private.
As I have recently argued, the EU’s old ways and routines of doing things are increasingly destructive. They have actually fuelled the economic crisis because one of the key roles of EU institutions is to try to deny and suppress inconvenient economic and democratic facts.
To understand why a banal Brussels negotiation – yet another re-run of the ‘Germany demands a treaty change and Britain asks for something in return’ story – broke the EU, it is necessary to probe further.
The opprobrium heaped on Cameron’s head by Europe’s elites and their fellow travellers is because he is perceived as having allowed the politics of party to triumph over the bureaucratic routines of state. ‘As an act of crass stupidity, this has rarely been equalled’, opined Will Hutton in the Observer. ‘Cameron has made a crucial misjudgment, simply to appease the City and his own jingoistic right-wingers.’
The shrill attacks on Cameron’s failure to achieve the ‘national interest’ demonstrate the extent to which that priceless commodity is now defined by permanent Whitehall officials rather than by public politics or through a clash of parties competing to lead the British people. Similarly, the EU, particularly during this economic crisis, has shown itself to be a mechanism for evading or even overthrowing public politics; it is about drawing up policy away from the institutions of democratic accountability, in an arena that is ‘independent’ of the public.
Hutton rightly criticises the demands that the British government made in last week’s negotiations, where it insisted on protections to preserve the eminence of the City of London. But he spectacularly misses the main point. The ‘protocol’ that was requested by Cameron as Britain’s price for agreeing to treaty change was not drafted by Tory ideologues or their posh banker chums, but rather by mandarins – in this case by Jon Cunliffe, a Treasury official and Britain’s new permanent representative to the EU next year, an experienced Whitehall fixer under both the Tories and Labour.
Cameron was tabling a demand that reflected the ‘national interest’ as defined by unelected Whitehall bureaucrats; his ‘veto’ occurred because both Germany and France refused to negotiate on it and Cameron faced a rebellion inside his party if he failed to get anything.
In the view of Hutton and others, Cameron has committed the cardinal sin of putting politics above the so-called expertise of EU technocrats. Cameron acted out of political interest and thus stood in the way of the insulated decision-making of the EU’s oligarchs and central bankers. ‘If the Euro breaks up because its members have to move clumsily and slowly outside the formal EU treaties and institutions because of Cameron’s veto, the resulting series of bank collapses and consequent depression will hurt Britain badly’, Hutton lamented.
The EU split has taken place because the Euro crisis and the rivalries between the global powers (Germany, France and Britain) left little room for bureaucratic manoeuvre, and therefore politics exploded into the open. The big shifts of last week actually expressed a changing reality, rather than that reality being suppressed beneath euro-pieties, as has happened so often in the past.
Most accounts of how last week’s talks failed tend to take the technocratic view that Cameron ‘miscalculated’, as if this were all a matter of slide rules or spreadsheets. In truth, Cameron took a decision, as did the French and German leaders. It was an unusual decision, because it meant that the structures of the EU were no longer able to accommodate or hide the clash of interests around the Brussels table. If the EU had worked as normal last week, then it’s likely we would have heard nothing about the debate at all – instead, another ‘world-saving deal’, with an even shorter lifespan than the last one, would simply have been handed down to us, the childish citizens with our disruptive political tendencies.
The consequences of the summit crack are as yet unclear. A lot will depend on whether Cameron stands aside, as officials want him to, in order to allow the EU institutions to work for the new Euro-Plus grouping. Some senior Europeans are already talking about using the EU as a weapon to punish the British government, to make it regret having put politics before stitch-ups. George Papendreou, the former Greek prime minister, was deposed from power by the EU for less. In such a climate, open public politics, of whatever complexion, is both necessary and desirable.
The cracking of the EU should be celebrated. Any open debate on the Euro, and any disruption to the series of unravelling technocratic fixes that threaten to tear European societies apart, can only be a good thing. Europe faces a very large crisis – and open, public politics, not yet more evasive technocratic fudges, is the starting point of finding a solution to that crisis.
Bruno Waterfield is Brussels correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and author of E-Who? Politics Behind Closed Doors, published by the Manifesto Club.
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