It is obvious to all that 2013 will not go down as one of Europe’s glory years. But will 2014 be any better? Our secret columnist in Brussels Schadenfreude attempts to find out
The year started with a good deal of talk about ‘more Europe’, exemplified by a banking union in which – for example – deficits might be mutualised. In more Europe, there could be central oversight of national fiscal policies to make sure that they remained within the set parameters.
There was a rival show – ‘less Europe’. The agitprop was the British Prime Minister David Cameron, who thought that he detected disillusionment throughout the European Union and who sought a ‘new settlement’; possibly for the United Kingdom alone, possibly for all (who had not said that they wanted it.)
When Cameron invited the other member states to tell him what in their view a new ‘balance of competences’ should be France and Germany, among others, pointedly did not reply. The European Union has incurred disfavour among the citizens of its members. It is seen as government of the people, for the people but not by the people. We know that EU law-making is seen as undemocratic.
This contention disregards the European Commission, which is nominated by elected governments and appointed by the European Parliament. It ignores the European Council, consisting of minsters responsible to their parliaments. And it excludes the European Parliament, which as a co-legislator is elected by domestic systems chosen by national governments.
These qualifications do not override public perceptions that the EU is remote from the people. The member states that gained their freedom when the Soviet Empire collapsed see it qualified by union membership. The citizenry of the member states which were bailed out are subjected to externally imposed austerity that even the International Monetary Fund – one of the creators of the very concept – now regards as excessive.
If the union was seen to be working well, the constitutional questions might be relegated. But it is not. Membership of the eurozone did not protect its members from the global economic downturn. In retrospect, the major beneficiary has been Germany with its huge trading surplus, protected against the devaluation of its partners’ currencies. Youth unemployment is a standing disgrace, for which the member states will pay a political price as the voters look back on their earlier years.
Meanwhile, discontent in Britain is pointing towards an ‘in’ or ‘out’ referendum in 2017. The Europhobes have gained ground, especially with the recent focus on ‘benefit immigration’ from the newer member states. In response, the British government seems to want to disregard the union’s provisions for the right to travel and seek employment. The UK government’s response to public pressure – itself built on shaky data – is a success story and a strong encouragement for the anti-EU groups.
And so the EU enters 2014 with the prospect of another distraction while the British government presents its wish list, overshadowed by the prospect of the consequences of not getting enough of what it wants – a referendum in which the government campaigns for a ‘no’ vote. In another room, Scottish spokesmen – sitting behind the UK nameplate may be applying to join – with derogations. It is a funny old world.