Too many cooks spoil the broth. And if there are 28 cooks contributing to the EU soup, what are the prospects of something digestible? And so last evening to a debate entitled “The Future of Europe: British and Polish recipes” held by the British Embassy and Gazeta Wyborcza with David Liddington, British Minister of State for Europe, and Henryka Moscicka Dendys, Polish Under-Secretary of State for European Policy. Did we learn anything new?
As one might have expected, there is much on which the United Kingdom and Poland agree: the importance of the single market, enlargement, the reform of the common agricultural policy, and so on. Both countries also agree that the trade talks between the EU and the USA on trade are vital for the EU’s future. It is estimated that a successful outcome – the creation of the largest trading block in the world – could result in an additional annual income of Euro 545 for the average family as well as ensuring that the EU/USA regulatory standards become those for the rest of the world. The danger of failure is that as the USA increasingly looks to the countries on the Pacific rim, Europe will be forced to comply with standards adopted elsewhere. Of course, it would be unrealistic to expect the EU/USA trade talks to be over quickly nor for agreement to be reached in every area for there are simply too many vested interests to be overcome, especially in areas such as agriculture and public procurement. The USA tends to believe in free trade when it is doing the selling, less so when it is doing the buying.
Be that as it may, the biggest issue is that the EU must simply become more competitive if the shift in economic influence away from the EU is not to be total with the consequences to social welfare which are already becoming apparent. The generous welfare provision to which Europe has become used is simply not sustainable into the future without radical change. As well as being more competitive, the EU must be more flexible – not every member states wants everything the EU seeks to impose and, above all, the EU must become more democratically accountable. Dissatisfaction with EU is at record levels, with Poland one of only eight member states whose citizens feel attached to the EU. This frustration combined with economic stagnation plays into the hands of the extremist political parties (please see Things to Come) and the answer is not simply to strengthen the role of the EU parliament (a sub-set of the “more Europe” syndrome) since it is to national parliaments that folk look for democratic accountability.
While both the UK and Poland see the need for change, Poland does not share the UK’s recipe for the future. Poland remains one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the EU and the project of ever closer integration. Poland sees the EU as a way of locking the country into the heart of Europe and Eurozone membership as natural part of such integration. After almost of Poland’s exports go to the EU, its banking sector is largely owned by EU based banks and Poles generally trust EU institutions. Poland accepts the fact of a multi-speed Europe provided that this does not degenerate in to the “cherry picking” of which the UK is so often accused of wanting. Indeed, Poland would not like to see the UK leave the EU should the current British government be re-elected in 2015 and should the referendum promised for some time in 2017 result in a vote to leave the EU. Interestingly, the Polish minister said that the current crisis has made the EU too inward looking and that we should remember there is a world outside. Although neither minister expanded on this point, it does go to the nub of much of the difficulty the UK has with EU (notwithstanding that the UK is and has been an exemplary member – paying its dues, opening its markets, adopting EU directives promptly, and so on). Far from being the little Englanders of German mythology, the UK has always looked outwards, over the oceans to the world as whole, not simply eastwards over the Oder to the Urals. Having shaped the modern world no wonder the petty parochialism of mittel Europa and its apparatchiks in Brussels are so profoundly indigestible. The tragedy is that the UK abides by the rules in private and offers helpful comment and criticism in public, fur which it is forever castigated, whereas most other member states seen to do the opposite: praise the EU in public and ignore those rules that do not suit them in private.
Inevitably, much of the debate is shaped by history. The UK was democracy long before many of the EU member states were independent countries and the UK’s experience of the traumas of the twentieth century was very different from that of continental Europe. As a result of history, being alone and resisting the latest trouble to emerge from continental Europe is as natural for the UK as the idea of ever closer European integration is to Germany, something which it has tried more than once. And for Poland, wishing to be so tightly bound to the centre of Europe that it creases to be the plaything of its immediate neighbours, is a wholly logical approach. Given the UK’s tradition of democratic debate and accountability it is inevitable that there will be continual tension while the EU is run by folk who are neither accountable nor removable: a conflict between a democracy and “ademocracy” perhaps
Needless to say, in putting forward their countries’ recipes for the future of Europe, both ministers failed to address whether Europe has a future at all. As we increasingly destroy the foundations upon which European civilization, and thus much of what we take for granted, is built (in the destruction of which the EU itself plays no small part) we should not be surprised by the outcome. From a historical perspective perhaps we are not as I suggested in Things to Come in the 1930s but back at the fall of the Roman Empire (another great European project) when decadence, political chaos and the mistaken belief of the Romans that the massive immigration of non-Romans could make up for the their own unwillingness work to defend Rome lead to the downfall of a civilization. This is a discussion for another day but whether we adopt the British or the Polish recipe for the future of Europe, we had better ensure that we have something to cook with at all.