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Thread: Whither Europe by James Wilkie

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    Whither Europe by James Wilkie

    On Monday 10 December I attended by invitation a reception on the occasion of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. On listening to the panegyric speeches I could not help reminding myself that the EU was founded years after the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) had successfully stopped the Cold War and disarmed Europe, and that NATO, and not the EU, had stopped the Balkan war. To judge from the number of ambassadors who walked out in the middle of the proceedings I was not the only one with the feeling that the whole thing was staged as a prop to shore up a tottering edifice.

    In fact, the whole future of the European institutions, if not as yet in the melting pot, is currently an issue of considerable debate on the continent. Within the past few weeks I have attended four major conferences on the future of political Europe in my capacity as Chairman of the Scottish Democratic Alliance (SDA), while my Deputy Chairman was carrying on discussions with EFTA, at its Brussels office, as a possible platform for Scotland’s future participation in European affairs.

    One of these events, at the EU centre in Vienna, was on the theme of “The UK and Europe”. That one was rather a flop, because it produced no significant guidelines for the relationship, despite the imposing array of diplomatic talent present from the Foreign Office and the EU Commission, and in the person of Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador.

    Of the others, the two-day international conference on The Future of Europe in Hernstein Castle was most marked by the pronounced anti-UK virulence of continental politicians and MEPs and the lack of any real vision of where Europe is heading. Continental MEPs continually complain about the attitudes of “the islanders and Scandinavians” in the EU, while ignoring the mere possibility that the vital interests of those countries might be somewhat different from those of Central European states.

    The subsequent one-day conference in the Diplomatic Academy on the same theme concentrated on security and defence. Largely ignoring the existence of NATO, and never even mentioning the OSCE, the world’s largest security institution, the old notion of the need for a “European” (meaning EU) army was again floated for undertaking strategic assignments elsewhere in the world. My suggestion that the majority of current security threats and risks are not susceptible to military solutions was greeted with the silence it deserved.

    Far and away the most important and in detail productive of these events was the European Media Summit, when 80 selected members of the European leadership class and foreign correspondent observers flew into the Alpine resort of Lech am Arlberg for three days of talks on “Rethinking Europe”. Here the usual array of prominent national politicians, EU bureaucrats and academics was held in check by the presence of some of Europe’s most hard-bitten media commentators.

    For someone like myself, who has a foot in both camps, with deep roots in Scotland and also in Central Europe, what strikes me is the sheer incomprehension of one for the other. European diplomats who have served in the UK agree with me that the views of Europe seen from the perspectives of, say, Prague and Edinburgh, are vastly different, a difference that is largely unrecognised by viewers who have no experience of the other side.

    What does a landlocked state in the middle of the continent, with land borders to eight other countries, have in common with an island in the sub-arctic North Atlantic, the borders of which are 10,000 kilometers of salt water, with a land border of 150 km running over uninhabitable mountainous territory? The average Central European decision maker cannot grasp the fact that the geoeconomic, geosocial and hence geopolitical circumstances are so different that they simply cannot be encompassed by a single set of rules.

    This element of introversion, even narcissism, is something that runs through every political discussion on the continent. When a Central European speaks of “Europe”, he or she means Central Europe. Increasingly, however, among the political classes “Europe” is also being taken to mean one organisation, the European Union, although it is the smallest of all the major European institutions and represents just a fraction over half of the continent.

    The Media Summit nonetheless threw up some revealing insights into the state of Europe, not least the fact that its eastern half is taking a long time to overcome the legacy of its past. Anti-Semitism is still rife there, and there are long memories of events like Stalin’s mass murder of thousands of the Polish elite in the Katyn Woods, not assuaged by the suspicious air crash near Smolensk that killed several members of the Polish Government on their way to a commemoration in Katyn. A truly free media is still not guaranteed, and corruption is so widespread that in some countries “anyone can be bought”, and the incidence of psychiatric illness remains high, with a danger of social collapse in places from a combination of factors.

    There was considerable discussion on the state of the media, its responsibilities and the question of self-regulation, which was not seen as the ultimate approach to the maintenance of standards. The media’s importance for countering corruption and other evils was recognised, but declining availability of advertising and other sources of finance throughout Europe is increasingly hampering it, and the ongoing concentration of ownership is endangering its independence. Where have we heard this before?

    It was agreed that the capitalist system no longer fits our world, but suggestions for a replacement were thin on the ground. Economic growth was no longer seen as the answer to all economic problems; affluence without growth should be the aim from now on. Pointing out that the migration of manufacturing facilities to Eastern Europe had effectively ceased now that production costs had largely evened out, I put forward the opinion that, with the same levelling process now taking place over the whole world, the Western states would eventually have to accept a reduction in their material living standards, perhaps to those of the 1970s. There was dubiety amongst some of the listeners, but Professor Kurt Biedenkopf, former Prime Minister of the Free State of Saxony, backed me up. He also came out in strong opposition to the writer Robert Menasse, who had asserted in his address that the identities of the individual nation states would be submerged in the European state that is developing.

    Up in the Rüfikopf conference facilities, 6,000 feet high in the Eastern Alps, the tone was set by the psychologist Sibylle Storkebaum, who delivered a hard-hitting albeit amusing opening address on “Narcissism in Politics”, when she ruthlessly dissected the motivations of leading historical and contemporary political figures, including Margaret Thatcher and a number of active European politicians. Her remarks could apply to the introverted nature of the integration discussion as a whole.

    The ensuing debate on where the EU was going was summed up by the blunt question put by Franz Fischler, lately EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Fisheries, to the panel of experts chaired by Susanne Glass of ARD Television: “What should the Greeks do in order to make Greece a viable state?” To which the short answer was that nobody has a clue; they are all fumbling in the dark.

    Later, going down in the cable car with Fischler, who had been a member of the EU Commission when the Euro was introduced, I conversed with him about fishing and the nil chances of Iceland ever joining the EU, which I believe the Commission now accepts. I put it to him that the introduction of the Euro had been an organisational masterpiece but a political and monetary disaster, and now they were all running around like headless chickens. He was very silent on the subject.

    Nor was there much enlightenment at the final day’s session chaired by Markus Spillmann, Editor in Chief of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung. I found that my own opinion that the Euro should have been restricted to its relatively homogeneous Central European heartland for at least 10 years before attempting to extend it to the far from homogeneous periphery of Europe was shared by Michael Frank of the Süddeutsche Zeitung. Others are not so sanguine about the future of the EU. One German correspondent said to me after the meeting: “I give it three years.”

    The thread running through all of these discussions was similar to what we have witnessed in Scotland recently in relation to EU membership – the stubborn pursuit of an ideology without rethinking it in the light of changed conditions. The European idea itself is at least 600 years old, but its actual realisation in the shape of the EU was conceived during the 1920s, tentatively implemented in the early 1930s, and pulled out of the drawer after 1945. It was designed for a world that has now disappeared.

    Institutional Europe is actually in the best of health, with the 47-member Council of Europe, the 56-member United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the 57-member Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, NATO with its 50 member and partner states and a whole list of others all pursuing their activities in accordance with the classic definition of politics – the art of the possible. Only the ideologically motivated European Union, representing just over half of Europe, is in trouble.

    Nowadays there exists a whole level of governance at global level, with hundreds of international institutions under the umbrella of the United Nations carrying out a host of functions that were originally intended for carrying out at European level. Doesn’t this require modification of the European structures?

    Then again, the EU and the Euro are both Central European concepts designed for homogeneous Central European conditions, where the Euro remains a perfectly stable currency. They are not necessarily automatically suitable for application on the fringe of Europe, where framework conditions are often entirely different. Have these circumstances never registered?

    You never hear these and similar questions raised in discussions of the overall European project. The other institutions have all proved their worth – now why is the EU necessary? Does it serve any essential purpose? Questioning the holy writ of integration for the sake of integration is politically incorrect and not to be encouraged. It occurs to me, though, that more than ever now we need lateral thinkers who are prepared to cut through the unthinkingly inherited ideology and bring the whole thing back to first principles in the light of changed conditions. Because from my observation some central regulation is required by agreement in certain sectors, some could be beneficial if not absolutely necessary, and for the remainder the best and safest thing one could do would be to leave the European nation states to their own devices.

    END.

    Thought I'd share this for those that have an interest in Europe and also for those in Scotland when considering whether Scotland should retain membership of the EU after independence.

    Alastair

  2. #2

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    Re: Whither Europe by James Wilkie

    I tried to "like" this but got a message about having to turn "platforms" on. What is this about?
    We used to be able to just "like"...

    Sandy

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    Re: Whither Europe by James Wilkie

    Hi Sandy

    Alastair put up a message about this problem - 'Like' or 'Thanks'

    [quote starts]
    I have been asking Steve to add the like and thanks several times but he's not doing anything. I have looked at this myself and it's there in our admin config so I don't actually know how to get it implemented again unless we need to re-install it but that's a bit beyond me. Steve is meant to be doing the major update at the weekend and is also meant to be adding back in anything we lost. So I only hope he'll do all that. Just wish he was more reliable.

    Alastair
    [quote ends]

    Ranald

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    Re: Whither Europe by James Wilkie

    Thanks Ranald, I suppose I did not take that comment in. The "like" button is up there at the top of the posting...

    Sandy

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    Re: Whither Europe by James Wilkie

    Yes Sandy, the 'Like' button is there, but being 'Facebook', I will NOT be going down that road!

    Ranald

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    Re: Whither Europe by James Wilkie

    I read the article as typical of politicians jumping on the wagon to outsmart the smarts before them and proliferating to the point of unwieldy. Sounds like the clarion call of many in this country 'Government is too big!!'

  7. #7

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    Re: Whither Europe by James Wilkie

    Not on topic but how about this for big government! Pentagon maintains 234 golf courses world-wide at undisclosed cost.

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