In 1962, the French President Charles de Gaulle was famously quoted as saying: “How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” In fact, the French have nearer to 400 varieties of cheeses but, in this as in so much else, are once more beaten by the British who have over 700 varieties of cheese. But, exciting as Anglo-French cheese rivalry may be, it is Swiss cheese that makes the news this week, particularly the varieties with holes. How so?
Those doughty champions of democracy, the Swiss, voted in a referendum on Sunday in favour (50.3 per cent) of imposing quotas for EU immigrants. Although not a member of the EU, Switzerland had signed a number of agreements with the EU, which included on the free movement of people, which came into force twelve years ago. Those in favour of the quotas had claimed that immigration had pushed salaries down, while simultaneously straining the housing, health and transport systems. Those against had argued that free movement was vital to the success of the Swiss economy. Needless to say this did not go down well in certain EU quarters. The Polish Foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, said that “Unfortunately, populism won, albeit narrowly.” He expressed agreement with Viviane Reding, the European Commissioner for Justice who said that European freedom cannot be divided up and that the European Union cannot resemble a Swiss cheese. Viviane Reding herself told the Financial Times that “you cannot have a single market with holes in it”. Leaving aside the fact that Swiss cheese is probably more liked in Europe than the EU – or perhaps, more accurately, the arrogant and detached EU politburo and their acolytes lurking in governments of member states – it already does with a variety of exemptions, derogations and other holes of which an Emmental cheese would be proud.
Amazingly, Viviane Reding, managed to dig a deeper hole by suggesting that Britons were too ignorant to make an informed decision about EU membership in the promised referendum in 2017. Speaking at an Orwellian sounding EU sponsored “Citizens Dialogue” in London she boasted that 70 per cent of the UK’s law were now made in Brussels and attacked David Cameron’s bid to curb immigration. This prompted Pawel Sidlicki, of the think tank Open Europe, to categorize her remarks as epitomizing the EU elites’ approach to dealing with the public – superficially embracing debate with citizens while dismissing any substantive criticism. “Having their legitimate concerns dismissed in such a high-handed manner only drives people towards populist, anti-EU parties. Sadly, EU politicians like Reding often do a better job at driving voters towards these parties than they do themselves.”
Quite. This is on a par with last week’s remarks by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister that the rise of Eurosceptic groups such as the UK Independence Party hampers the cooperation that has kept the continent at peace for decades. In his view European nations should cooperate ever more closely because history has shown that when European countries do not have close relations, military conflict can arise. “We have got Euro-sceptics getting together in parties, getting more public attention and while Europe is in a crisis that doesn’t make our work any easier,” he said. Indeed – how dare we allow democratic expression to get in the way of bureaucratic efficiency? No, what causes problems, and what drives folk into the hands of extremists, is the arrogant indifference so graphically illustrated by Reding and Steinmeier: you are wrong, we are right so shut up (and pay up).
Interestingly, these folk seem to resemble nothing so closely as the old Soviet Union which was forever backing freedom movements abroad while denying its own population those same freedoms. (In fact, I am perhaps being unfair to the Soviet leadership since those “freedom movements” were led by gun-toting Marxist kleptomaniacs in Moscow’s own image and, since freedom was not on offer to the liberated, they were not being inconsistent after all). Which would explain why there is so much EU support for the Ukrainians who have been on the streets challenging their government while those who dare to express a contrary vision to the EU elite are branded dangerous extremists. Of course, when I say support, I really mean the endless meetings, empty talk and meaningless slogans that pass for activity, postponing difficult decisions about actually doing something of practical use until the Ukrainians have sorted it out for themselves. When it comes to association with the EU, be careful what you wish for.
If the EU project cannot accommodate democratic accountability and the legitimate concerns of European citizens, while providing a sensible economic framework for prosperity, it will fail, and deservedly so. In the meantime, Commissioner Reding should remember that when you are in hole stop digging. And if you cannot persuade folk that you are right, hard cheese.