The UK’s Toxic Discourse; Miliband and Euro-Defence

Richard Corbett MEP points to a bizarre feature of British debate on Europe; there is absolutely no certainty as to how anything will be reported or received. David Miliband recently gave a speech at the College of Europe in Bruges in which he stated that it was undesirable that the EU states’ deployable armed forces amounted to less than 100,000 men out of something like two million under arms in total.

(It’s a pity he still won’t answer the damn questions about Iraqi employees.)

The Daily Express, reliably insane under the ownership of porn king Richard Desmond, claimed he had a “project for the Islamification of Europe”. This is because he thinks the single market should eventually include North Africa; apparently the Express has forgotten that it demanded the UK should impose restrictions on the movement of labour, like France and Germany did, when Poland joined the EU.

The Daily Mail thought he was planning a “new EU empire”. The Independent and sometimes the Guardian thought he was diminishing the EU; the Guardian also separately praised the speech, thus scooping the pot for consistency.

What is this accusation of “diminishing” the EU (which Nosemonkey also bought into) based on? Well, it’s not the EU’s defence policy he was criticising, more the fact there isn’t more of one. And the most quoted sentence was that “Europe will be less important in 2050 than it was in 1950” – everyone seems to have read this as Euro-bashing.

However, how could it possibly not be true, given that by then India, China, and probably Brazil will be major world powers? Unless you’re expecting the United States to collapse, the EU will be one among many powers; rather than one of the three world industrial bases Harry Truman spoke of in the 1940s.

Meanwhile, there is real progress being made; when HMS Illustrious does the Royal Navy’s next eastern deployment she may have Italian or Spanish Harrier AV8B aircraft aboard. Granted this tells us more about the ragged state of the British armed forces, but it’s a start; although what the Spanish government will make of the following proposal is anyone’s guess:

The Royal Navy continues to study the idea of making Gibraltar the home of one of the new aircraft carriers.

Plans for a carrier base have been in development for several years. The idea would make Gibraltar home to one of Britain’s two new aircraft carriers along with the support fleet that accompanies it.

Quiet Riot

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.

History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes

The flipside of the European dream is that by its nature, the vision of “non-imperial empire” as Barroso calls it is a powerful encouragement to the paranoid imagination. Curiously, the vision remains much the same across different paranoid styles; almost uncannily so.

In Britain, a surprisingly large number of people in the Conservative Party – not just UKIP and the BNP – think that the existence of “regions” is a secret plot to dismantle the UK, somehow associated with a scheme to reduce the British Army to 100,000 men, at which point it magically becomes “a defence force” – that the Israelis call their military that doesn’t seem to register.

In the United States, fascinatingly, the know-nothing hard right is gradually developing an ideological position that can be best described as American Euroscepticism. Supposedly, George W. Bush is scheming to replace the dollar with a new currency for a tyrannous North American Union; it will be called the “amero”. The upshot is that Mexicans are coming to take your stuff. It seems clear that the Gedankengut of the British far right is being repurposed in the US.

And in Turkey, right-wing generals apparently think the AKP’s drive for EU membership is part of a cunning plan to Talibanise Turkey. By joining the EU, the army’s role in politics will be terminated. Then, the AKP will unmask itself and convert Turkey into Afghanistan. It’s astonishing how similar these paranoid structures are. They clearly bear some similarities to well-known cultural tropes about the seductions of prosperity and peace, which go back to the ancient Greeks, and to the fascist idea sometimes described as the “city as whore”. After all, there is no real future for a military-ruled Turkey that beats EU membership.

But it’s an occupational hazard of being the Borg.