Quietly, there seems to be a tiny crisis affecting European politics. For a start, there’s the rocambolesque imbroglio making Belgium a generic cynosure. It would be hard to do better than to point again to Crooked Timber, although it’s worth pointing out that Jean Quatremer is doing a good job too. I especially like the quote from the Flemish prime minister about the 40,000 Flemish hunters (or light infantrymen – the context is missing and the word is the same) who can defend Flanders in the event of civil war; now that’s what I call statesmanlike.
Of course, nothing of the sort is going to happen – in fact, if you wanted my prediction I’d say nothing at all will happen. Belgium may consist only of the King, the army, a football team, some diplomats and taxmen, and the capital, but that’s more than the Austro-Hungarian Empire had in the way of central institutions. In fact the similarities are marked; the overlapping divisions, competing governments, large and permanently different capital city. But whatever happens, the result won’t be the first world war, or for that matter the end of the European Union. Whatever the collectif antiliberale says about it.
Apparently it’s all a neoliberal plot to destroy the EU and socialism, based on this FT thinkpiece. Sadly, Jerome seems to have missed a bit:
the vital importance of a functioning EU to the continent’s stability and prosperity
And another one:
Democratic pragmatists, who support European integration as a means to enhancing national interests rather than as an end in itself, can plausibly argue that their vision of the EU has never been more relevant. If the Flemish and Walloons do unhook from each other, they can quickly hook back into the EU as separate entities bound by common European values. The very existence of the EU allows us to contemplate a resurgence in national sentiment without fear of violence or confrontation. In the context of Europe’s past, that is no small achievement.
No hostile paraphrasing there, eh.
Of course, Robin Shepherd is right – it’s precisely why we need the EU. I would expect that nobody will notice very much difference even if Belgium is abolished; funny little nationalisms are a luxury a continent where borders are meant to be irrelevant can afford.
Meanwhile, a million miles away (well, it feels like it..), Britain may be about to have another spasm of Euro-politics. The European issue in Britain has traditionally swung across the political spectrum, like a cow on a rolling deck, blundering into political parties and sending them flying like skittles. To kick off in the 1940s, Ernest Bevin as Labour Foreign Secretary was keen on the proto-Euroinstitutions, the OEEC, the European Payments Union, and NATO, and the idea of Europe as a “third force”, but was opposed by the Labour Left who thought the “same old gang” were behind the Schuman Plan, trying to get their hands on the nationalised coal industry.
Then in the 50s, there was a split in both parties – the Tories were unenthusiastic until MacMillan, but always had strong European and diehard imperial tendencies. Then, a period of consensus around the three applications to join. Then, in the 70s and early 80s, the Labour Party swung back against, before the 1988 Policy Review espoused “social Europe”. The Conservatives, meanwhile, passed Labour in ’88 going the other way, from ratifying the Single European Act of 1987 to the Eurosceptic wars of 1990-1997. It looks like the issue is about to crash into Labour again, but the ricochets will be widespread.
What has happened? Well, some of the trade unions are keen on holding a referendum on the not-constitutional treaty, and are deploying the same arguments as the Tories for it (it’s really the same thing, Blair promised one on the constitution, &c). But their reasoning is opposite; they are concerned about the bits about free trade from the Treaty of Rome. They’re hoping for a non de gauche, having seen what a triumph this was for their comrades in France. Of course, the problem with the entire argument is that turning down the treaty won’t reverse this, as it’s the status quo.
At the same time, the Conservatives are in favour of a referendum, because they think it’s something even they could win. (Yes, it’s harsh. Harsh, but fair.) And so are the Liberal Democrats; who probably don’t think they could win, but feel that it would be best to support a referendum. Not just any old referendum, though, but an all-out balls-to-the-wall one on British membership of the EU.
Risky, no? Not that anyone’s listening. Even if the only time this was done, the pro-membership side won convincingly, and every government that has been elected since 1970 has been more or less supportive of the EU, this positively frightens me. The upshot? The Prime Minister may be tempted to shoot the fox; more like sweep the whole field with a machine gun. That would be achieved by calling an election with ratification as a manifesto commitment; which may just have become more likely.