A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Brexit. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Merkel and Hollande, Draghi and Juncker, French Socialists and German police-spies.
How did it happen? The answer lies not in England, which outside London voted heavily for Brexit. It lies within the EU itself.
I have been a strong supporter of the EU for nearly all my adult life. However I am not blind to the realities. It has been obvious to me for a long time that things have been going seriously wrong.
First it is important to dispel certain myths about the EU. In the popular Eurosceptic imagination it is a remote and unaccountable bureaucracy based in Brussels that meddles and regulates every area of life. This is a misrepresentation. The EU bureaucracy is actually rather small and has only as much power as EU governments give it.
John Laughland in a recent RT Crosstalk called the EU more accurately a cartel of governments who conspire behind the scenes with each other to pass legislation without the need to consult with their democratically elected parliaments. Whilst that is closer to the truth, it is not the whole truth. Rather the EU, at least as it has become over the last decade, is best understood as a cabal of three governments, primarily those of the US and Germany, with France treated by the Germans (though not by the US) as a sort of junior partner, which make the decisions in secret that are binding on all the rest.
I appreciate that this description of the EU will meet with strong objections in some quarters, especially as by far the most powerful of these governments is that of the US which is not a member of the EU. However what I say is well known by all the relevant insiders. Indeed the facts speak for themselves and are hardly even concealed. On key issues EU policy is nowadays decided in private bilateral discussions between the US and the Germans, often involving the US President and the German Chancellor, with the Germans then telling the other Europeans what they should do.
In a recent article for Sputnik I described the process as it is used in connection with the sanctions issue:
“……..a source has told me US representatives routinely attend the EU’s Committee of Permanent Representatives (“COREPER”), though minutes of its sessions are edited to suppress the fact of their presence. However their regular attendance at sessions of a key institution of the EU — of which the US is not a member state — has been complained about on the floor of the European Parliament.
Since COREPER prepares the agenda for the EU’s Council of Ministers (the EU’s key law making body) and co-ordinates the work of some 250 EU committees and working parties — in effect the entire EU bureaucracy — US presence at its sessions gives the US a decisive voice in the making of EU policy.
Since the European Council decided to impose sectoral sanctions on Russia on 31st July 2014 every single decision to extend the sanctions has been taken not by the European Council but by COREPER, though COREPER’s legal authority to make such decisions is questionable to say the least.
What happens in reality is that US President Obama tells German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Hollande to extend the sanctions, the Commission drafts the decision, COREPER ratifies it, and it is then published without further discussion on the Europa website.
Italian Prime Minister Renzi has complained German Chancellor Merkel talks about EU decisions to French President Hollande and EU Commission President Juncker. They are then announced, and it is only then he learns about them.”
In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote this procedure was at work again. The White House website confirms that apart from British Prime Minister Cameron the one EU leader US President Obama spoke to following the Brexit vote was German Chancellor Merkel – as if it were Chancellor Merkel who headed the EU! The information the White House has released about the call shows it was intended to “reassure” Merkel and Cameron of the US’s commitment to maintaining its partnership with the EU and Britain. Another way of putting it would be to say that it was intended to remind Merkel and Cameron of the US’s paramount interest in the EU’s and Britain’s affairs and in preserving its alliance with both of them.
As I have explained in many places, any European political leader who tries to hold out against this system risks finding their objections simply ignored whilst becoming the target of the wrath of the US and of the EU establishment. Thus in January 2015, shortly after the Syriza government came to power in Greece, it found that it was supposed to have agreed to the rolling over of sanctions against certain Russian individuals and businesses. In fact it had done no such thing. However when it dared to make its concerns public its leaders were warned through the European media that they were being investigated by the West’s intelligence agencies to see if they had Russian links. Faced by such a threat and caught up in difficult debt negotiations with the EU leadership, they caved in and the decision to roll over the sanctions was left to stand.
European leaders who object to the way things are now done in fact now run the risk of becoming the target of vicious smear campaigns in Europe’s overwhelmingly Atlanticist mass media, as well as attempts to engineer their removal from office. Along the way they also risk having their countries become the target of harassment and sometimes outright destabilisation carried out through the EU’s institutions. Thus Prime Ministers Berlusconi of Italy and Papandreou of Greece were ejected from office because they objected to aspects of the EU’s economic policies during the Eurozone crisis and in Papandreou’s case wanted to put an EU bailout proposal to the Greek people in a referendum; Prime Minister Tsipras of Greece experienced the illegal cutting off of credit to his country’s banks and efforts – which were ultimately successful – to force him to reform his government in a more “acceptable” direction; and Prime Minister Orban of Hungary is regularly branded in parts of the European media a fascist because he has objected to certain EU policies and wants better relations with Russia.
Beyond these campaigns are repeated – though usually veiled – threats to cut off an EU member state’s access to the EU structural funds or even to suspend its voting rights in the EU institutions if it refuses to toe the line. This is being currently done to Poland in relation to certain judicial changes that are being enacted there, it was done during the recent Austrian Presidential election in case the people of Austria voted the “wrong way”, it was done last autumn to force various East European states to toe the EU line during the migrant crisis and it was done – repeatedly – to Greece during the Grexit crisis last year.
Most notorious of all is of course the EU’s habit of simply ignoring the results of elections or referendums that go against its decisions. Most recently Greece and the Netherlands have conducted referendums – on Greece’s bailout and on the association agreement with Ukraine – that were simply set aside or ignored.
In such a situation, where a political leader’s chances of survival and ability to get things done depends so much on staying on the right side of the EU’s leadership – and ultimately of the US – rather than their own country’s voters, it is unsurprising that the quality of Europe’s political leadership has declined to so great a degree. In place of people like De Gaulle, Adenauer, Brandt and Thatcher, European political leaders today increasingly come over as colourless technicians distant from their own voters because the system allows for nothing else.
Germany is no exception to this phenomenon. It is a fundamental mistake to see Germany as the beneficiary of the system. Far from Germany being the imperial master of the system as is often claimed, Germany actually finds itself in the unhappy position of being paymaster and enforcer for policies decided on in the US with its leader spied on to make sure she toes the line. The result is that Germany regularly gets blamed for policies that are actually decided elsewhere and which – as in the case of the sanctions imposed on Russia – are often contrary to its own interests.
Take the issue that more than any other crystallised anti-EU sentiment in Britain during the Brexit referendum: the EU’s policy of unrestricted internal migration, which has resulted in large numbers of East European migrant workers coming to Britain.
Freedom of movement within the EU has always been a core principle of the EU. It was never an issue within the EU until the EU was expanded to include the much poorer countries of Eastern Europe. That expansion – as everyone knows – was driven not by European needs but first and foremost by US geopolitical strategies, being intended to anchor Eastern Europe in the US-led Western alliance system.
To that end the East European states were admitted into the EU long before their economic situations justified doing so. In order to seal the deal their elites were won over by promises of a seat at the EU top table. Huge sums were paid over to them principally by Germany through the so-called EU structural funds (originally conceived to foster development in the EU’s poorer regions but increasingly used in Eastern and Southern Europe as a form of legalised bribery to bind local elites). Lastly, their young people were won over with the promise of visa free access to the rest of Europe – thus creating the migrant situation that has been the cause of so much anger in Britain.
The implications were never thought through or discussed within Europe because EU expansion ultimately followed a US geopolitical agenda rather than a European one. The result is that despite increasing alarm across Europe at the consequences of the policy the EU bureaucracy continues to pursue the same policy towards other states the US wants to bring into the system like Turkey and Ukraine.
Or take another issue: the Eurozone crisis. The idea of European monetary union was originally conceived in the 1970s and was already firmly on the agenda by the late 1980s. Margaret Thatcher fell from power because she opposed it. The idea it was conceived following the fall of the Berlin Wall is wrong.
What has made the Eurozone crisis so intractable is its well-known structural problems – the fact a single currency was created to cover very different economies without a single treasury or tax system behind it – but also the contradiction between the US geopolitical ambitions that increasingly drive the EU and European needs if the Eurozone is to be managed properly.
Economic conditions in southern Europe – in Greece especially – point clearly to the need for at least some of these countries to exit the Eurozone, a fact that is well-understood within the German government. Yet that option is ruled out not just because of opposition within Europe itself but because again it goes against the geopolitical interest of the US, which is to keep these countries locked within the euro system, which in turn binds them to the Western alliance and therefore ultimately to the US itself. Thus at the height of the Grexit crisis last year German Chancellor Merkel abruptly reversed a previously agreed German position to support Grexit following a call from President Obama of the US who told her not to. The result is that instead of the Greek crisis being resolved once and for all in Europe’s and Greece’s interests – as German Finance Minister Schauble said it should be – it has instead been left to fester indefinitely.
The EU can work – as it did in the past – when it functions as a genuine community of economically and culturally compatible free democracies, which do not always agree with each other but which are nonetheless prepared to work closely with each other in certain areas in their mutual interest.
It cannot work as a crypto-imperial project of someone else – especially when that someone else is located far away on the other side of the ocean and can therefore have little idea of European wants and needs.
It was therefore inevitable that beyond a certain point such a crypto-imperial project would provoke resistance and it is entirely unsurprising that the first expression of that resistance should come in Britain, which has always been the country that was most skeptical of the EU in the first place.
In truth Britain has for some time now operated in an anomalous position within the EU. As Wolfgang Munchau has rightly said in an article in the Financial Times, Britain has in reality been at best a semi-detached member of the EU for some time, remaining in theory a member of the EU but refusing to commit itself to the Eurozone where the key decisions are now made.
Britain is not therefore a key member of the EU and Brexit is not the catalyst for a wider revolt within the EU that some say it is. Rather it is a harbinger of more revolts to come, which were already on the way, and which without a radical change of approach would in time happen irrespective of whether there were a Brexit vote or not. Already there are stirrings in Spain, Italy and France and increasingly even in Germany itself.
The EU leaders still have the time and political space to turn things round. Doing so however will require a degree of courage, intelligence and political imagination that in recent years has been in disastrously short supply. Above all what is needed is a renegotiation of Europe’s relationship with the US, changing it from a relationship of subservience into one of genuine equality and partnership.
The alternative is probably not the imminent disintegration of the EU. The economic and political bonds that hold it together make that unlikely. Rather it is one of an EU wracked by disagreement and crisis, with its population increasingly sullen and disaffected, and with its economy going nowhere.
In some respects that would be an even worse outcome – and betrayal of the people of Europe – than the EU’s disintegration, which would at least offer the possibility of a fresh start. As a European I devoutly hope it will not come to that. As a realist I have no conviction that it won’t.