Britain and Europe: a proposal

Xenophobics are feeding off the undefined notion of European union. Britain must not buckle beneath their bigotry
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Being British

Let us begin at the beginning. The British are Europeans. Among the first people to land on these shores were explorers from the Mediterranean. They were followed by Germanic tribes, by Romans and Frenchmen, Jutes and Saxons, and later by waves of migrants from central Europe as well as the old Empire. The languages of Britain were once closely related to those of the continental Celts. By the time early medieval English developed, it looked rather like early medieval French and early medieval German. Modern English, spread as a world language by the Americans, is infecting and changing all the modern languages of the continent.

The British are also European in their political history. For a long time, the islands and the continent swapped royal families and shared a single religious authority. Even when the Scots and English broke from Rome, they were partially following Swiss and North German examples. In more recent times, the British have been European in their political values. Given the history of democracy and free speech, island patriots might put it the other way and say that the other Europeans are now British in their political values. Certainly French freedom and the German constitution both owe a lot to London.

But whichever way one puts it, the British islands and the Western European landmass share common political genes. British history was affected by Voltaire and Monnet, just as French history was affected by Paine and Churchill. Continental economic thought, from Marx onwards, would have been impossible without Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Economically, Britain and continental Europe are very close and growing closer. Whatever the politicians say, the business leaders are closing gaps. And culturally, British art, music and literature is almost impossible to imagine without the European setting. What would Shakespeare have been without his great store of Roman and Renaissance stories to draw from? Or Fielding without Cervantes - Wren without Palladio - Hockney without Picasso - Walton without Sibelius? As with politics, one can turn this cultural exchange around and ask whether German romanticism would have happened without British inspiration, or what would have happened to the French novel without Dickens.

All it shows is that Britishness and Europeanism are part of one another. We are more like than unlike, more sibling than cousin. But this hasn't made one nation and the great question today is whether Europe needs to take a further stride towards political integration - mingling again, but this time at the level of political authority. European companies are buying one another, speaking English at boardroom level and swapping corporate lessons. Cheaper travel and better education, as well as political leadership on the continent, are persuading more private Europeans to spend time in one another's countries, and to learn one another's Euro- dialects. But does this mean that European political union should follow as well? What are we trying to escape from which needs this further step?

Nationalism or Xenophobia?

The anti-European crusaders now in full gallop in this country would say, most of them, that they too are Europe-lovers. They like their Beethoven and their holidays in Normandy or Umbria. All they are against is the Brussels bureaucracy and its threat to our ancient Parliamentary freedoms. Some of them, the more sophisticated, would argue that the European Union by imposing common rules is actually eroding the traditional meaning of Europe, which thrived on creative diversity. If the EU makes the French a little less French and de-Spanishes the Spaniards, isn't it the anti- European force?

These are clever arguments and, sometimes, honestly meant. But they depend upon a kind of willing blindness which makes them dishonest and which everyone who is seriously interested in this debate must squarely confront.

For the truth is that the main emotional force behind the anti-Brussels crusade isn't parliamentary traditionalism or democratic sensitivity. It is xenophobia - raw, potent and addictive. If fogey-journalists don't feel it, sitting in metropolitan restaurants with their parliamentary friends, then the people they are trying to rouse to anger certainly do. What is quietly suckled and nurtured by the Times and the Telegraph leaps into adolescent anger from the pages of the Sun and the Express. It is anti-German, not anti-bureaucrat. It is anti-French, not anti-Brussels. It is immature and dangerous, a loser's emotion.

Sophisticates who pen angry anti-EU pamphlets may disclaim any interest in the way their arguments are glossed late at night in the pub or the tabloid press. They may wrinkle their noses. They may disown the effect of their words. But if they do not know what they are about they are fools. And if they do know, they are culpable. In our view their position is about as convincing as that of Enoch Powell in disclaiming any connection with the views of racist dockers marching in London, or of the middle- class Bennites who smugly closed their eyes to the intimidation and thuggishness of some of the early-Eighties militants they supported and egged on.

Nationalist politics depends upon specialness, on defining the group and thrusting away the rest of humanity as Other. Its peculiarity is to make the gap between the pamphlet and the curse, the clever argument and the obscene threat, frighteningly short. And what we are seeing in Britain today is nationalist politics, deriving from a lack of national confidence. It is a curious kind of nationalism, since it is fervently against Scottish nationalism or Irish nationalism. Presumably the recipe for a post-EU Europe includes a vigorous revival of German nationalism too, and Serbian nationalism and Spanish nationalism. Yet somehow the case for those nationalisms and their possible effect on European security has failed to attract the curiosity of British Conservative nationalists.

Would British withdrawal from political involvement in the EU make the nationalist tone disappear in British politics, as the Tory right has sometimes implied? How could it? We would have defined ourselves even more clearly as the Chosen Nation, and pushed away the main development of European public life as other and alien. Our borders would be raised a little higher against France and Germany in practice as well as in spirit. (Otherwise, what would be the point?) Had the beef crisis happened to a post-EU Britain, we would have had no Brussels forum to argue in; our rage would have been squarely directed at other national governments and peoples. Would this have quelled xenophobia - or fuelled it? We believe that a post-EU Britain, confronted by arguments over fishing and trade would be more nationalist, not less. It would be a country hunching its shoulders against the surrounding world.

We are not a pro-European newspaper because we are in love with qualified majority voting, or cohesion funds, or because we believe the views of EU commissioners are worthy of admiration. We are a pro-European newspaper because we think that to be anything else is morally wrong and intellectually disgraceful. The Europe of nation-states, lacking binding institutions and any European political ethic would be too near to a Europe of competing nationalisms for comfort. And we have been there before. This is why Europe needs some kind of union.

Democracy or efficiency?

Yet the anti-Europeans have one important and basic truth on their side. It is that the Union as it currently operates is undemocratic and, because of that, dangerous in its own way. The system of government envisaged and practised is too complicated and too far from the lives of Europeans to be secure. Unless you are Belgian, Brussels is further away than your national parliament. For many of us, the national parliaments already seem out of touch and distant. Because of the need for compromise, and the complex cluster of institutions - court, parliament, council and commission - the decision-making process of the EU is very hard for outsiders to understand. When these decisions are uncontroversial this may not matter. But if they have been taken without the assent and understanding of most Europeans, they are not safe. Full political union is not desirable because, while it might be efficient and forceful, it cannot be democratic.

The dangers implicit in this can be seen most easily by looking at the next proposed phase of integration, monetary union. There are good reasons for a single European currency. It would cut the costs of trade and travel in Europe. It would help reinforce virtuous monetary discipline. It would give the smaller countries, whose economies are today heavily influenced by the German Bundesbank, a place at the table in a new central bank. And it would bind European countries more closely together, making war between them at some future stage even less thinkable.

But the single currency cannot be run, in our view, without a single European economic policy alongside it. Monetary policy and fiscal policy cannot be disentangled. And this means that if the electorate of a member state voted in a government which was committed to changing policy radically, that democratically elected government would simply have to be overruled by the unelected European bank. In a radical overturning of democracy in favour of rule by experts, those staples of traditional Western politics, tax and spend, would be removed in effect from the political arena.

How would over-ruled electorates react? They would have no court of appeal. Unless it comes armed with the overwhelming and enthusiastic support of the electorates involved, any system which forbids voters to make important choices, including trying out foolish economic experiments, gives them in theory no way out but violence. And in practice as well as theory, that is a dangerous thing. It is why, on balance and after much heart- searching, we are against the single currency this time round, not simply for Britain but for all Europe.

This line of argument might seem bleak. If a return to European nationalism is wrong but a further stride towards political union is undemocratic, what choice is left for we Europeans? If it is not back nor forwards, are we left standing indecisively just about - well - here? The answer is that we should change direction.

The cloud at the end of the tunnel

From its earliest days, the European project was shrouded in deliberate mystery. The purpose of ever-closer union of peoples was clear enough. The mechanisms designed to achieve that purpose, from the Coal and Steel Community to the Schengen deal, were, at one level, straightforward enough agreements. But what was always cloudy was the end point. Where did Union eventually stop? Was it a true single European government, the abolition of individual nationality and a common citizenship from Minsk to Mallaig? Was Europe to be a giant crucible in which the identities, the borders and perhaps eventually some of the languages of the component peoples were simply melted away?

For nearly half a century the answer to this interesting question has been avoided by European political leaders for two reasons. First, it all seemed a long way in the future. But second, even to talk in such terms would be intensely controversial throughout the actually existing Europe where people remained stubbornly attached to their current identities.

But this coyness has run out of time. As Europeans, we can no longer continue on a journey whose destination is unmentionable. The more intrusive aspects of the European single market, digging into traditional practices, have already inflamed opinion and challenged identity. This goes for French hunters and cheesemakers, for Finns and Portuguese, as well as for the British. If we are to go further, people need to know why - and when, if ever, the journey will stop.

The mystery has also resulted in an unnecessarily confusing European structure. We talk about the original visionaries of Europe as ''the architects'' of the EU. But this is a misleading image. They were more like opportunist amateur builders. In pursuit of integration, they simply grabbed any issue or possible area of agreement and tacked it on. This has resulted in a cobbled-together ''include that in'' quasi-constitution which is never formally admitted to be such, and a process of continuing change which is becoming unsettling. The EU as a whole has never had a conclusive discussion about which functions should, in ideal terms, be centralised, which should merely be coordinated, and which should be left with nation-states. It speaks of ''subsidiarity''. Yet it lacks a theory behind the word. It has never had its founding Congress or its Federalist Papers.

The Congress in 2000

The time for that is ripening. We urgently need a vision of Europe which can confound the Europe of competing nationalisms, and yet avoid a centralist regime, ensuring that Europe continues to be a continent of lively democracies. We need a new start that is neither tightly and undemocratically centralist, nor grating with national tension. This is achievable and would not, in truth, require a revolution. Looking well beyond this year's inter-governmental conference, Europe's leaders need to consider the case for a Congress of Europe in the year 2000 - symbolism has its place here - in order to draw up a clear and comprehensible constitution for the continent.

That constitution should define those powers and principles which must be held centrally to avoid the community of nations falling apart. And it should, of course, set out the institutional structure meant, in perpetuity, to protect those principles and exercise those powers. (Since that is what constitutions are for.) What holds us together before everything is a shared attitude to human rights and market freedoms, so a charter of rights should be at the core of the Union. The European Convention on Human Rights should be taken inside it. The European Court of Human Rights has been an invasive and controversial institution. It should continue to be. But beyond that, the four freedoms - the freedom of movement of people, goods, capital and services - should be there as founding principles to be agreed by all the nations.

The best way of thinking about a European constitutional structure is to keep it simple, imagining three boxes. In the first are those things which must be done by the centre and cannot be properly done elsewhere. In the next box are areas of cooperation between the nations, which may vary between one country and another. In the third is everything else, which returns to the nations.

The central functions should, we believe, be strictly limited and controlled by a simpler and more open political structure. In essence, the Council of Ministers must gain ground at the expense of the European Commission and the European Parliament. The Council should sit in public. Because it draws its ministerial members from national parliaments and governments, the effect will be to raise the importance of those national assemblies. At the moment, the Commission has three jobs - it is the EU's executive, its bureaucracy and its ginger group or campaigning arm. It can only properly do one of them, and the correct role for it is to be the bureaucracy, working more directly to the Council and with strictly limited powers of initiative. The European Parliament would find its powers also limited, above all by the limitation of central functions. But it would retain blocking powers. And the European Court of Justice would develop as the supreme constitutional court, protecting the nations against depredations by the centre, and vice-versa.

An end to the Common Agricultural Policy

This simplified centre would be strong and effective but only over a limited range of policies. What should they be? Because of the importance of the four freedoms, power to enforce them should be the central role of the European Council and its appendages. Much of the work of the single market has already been achieved and the principle of mutual recognition of standards, which avoids the sillier and more detailed interference of recent years, is well advanced. External trade relations sit naturally with internal ones and have been one of the EU's most notable recent successes.

But these economic functions should not go further. We have already made our case against the common currency. We do not believe there should be a common agricultural policy based on subsidy. If different countries, with different histories, wish to subsidise the living standards of farming families, they should be free to do so. But production should never be directly subsidised. This means that reform of the CAP is going in broadly the right direction, but that the central fund for agriculture should be removed. It also means that when the Eastern European countries come into the Union, they will sell vegetables and fruit at prices which cause serious harm to some French, German and British producers. So be it. They can be given personal financial help, or turn their land to other uses.

If goods are to pass freely, so too must Europeans. All nations should retain the right to check people who cross their borders, but these borders, within the EU, should continue to become steadily more porous. The fact that the police have no greater or lesser right to stop people crossing from Scotland to England doesn't impede the fight against crime or illegal migration here.

But the next most difficult question when defining ins and outs for a political union is whether social and labour policy should come from the centre. The argument in favour is that without common standards on trade unions, minimum pay, working conditions and so on, one EU country can exploit the single market to the detriment of others. Some minimum standards could be guaranteed as basic human rights at the core of the Union's purpose - which could, for instance, outlaw child labour or a denial of the right to join a trade association. But there is no overall consensus about what makes a good social policy. As with monetary union, there must be room for diversity and political experimentation. For these reasons, social policy should not be a core EU function.

Joint economic functions do not, however, stop with tariffs and mutual recognition. Until the day when mackerel and herring learn to be patriotic and keep to their own borders, the Union will require a common fisheries approach. It shouldn't be the current one which will eventually result in a huge armada of fishery protection vessels following the last Spanish trawler as it pursues the last whiting in the Atlantic as it, in turn, swims desperately around looking for a mate. There needs to be a more strongly conservationist policy until stocks rebuild themselves, strongly policed. Then, perhaps, a market in quotas should be established. And as for fishing conservation, so for some of the bigger environmental issues which involve the great rivers of Europe and airborne pollution.

A diverse and private Europe

There, broadly speaking, the role of the inner box, the central functions of the new Europe should stop. Then there is a second box, of things done jointly. If the EU is to develop into anything more than the loosest and most fragile of treaties then some of its nations have to take on more of the responsibility for European defence from the Americans. There is no benefit to anybody in the short term in challenging, never mind dismantling, the Atlantic treaty. But the creation of a European defence arm of Nato is a worthy project. It need not mean some kind of Napoleonic-era mega- army, in which every corps speaks a different language; European defence could involve national specialisation, so that Britain and France took the lions' share. But the need for a common policy towards Russia, as the EU expands eastwards, also requires a common capability. Similarly, there will be many diplomatic functions which European countries will wish to exercise jointly - Britain already shares embassy space with other EU countries, and Western Europe clearly needs to coordinate its policy on Russia and eastwards expansion.

But most other functions should be reserved finally and clearly to the nation states. The preservation of basic human rights, free trade and movement, and external security can be done better together than by individual nations or regions. They should be what binds Europe together in the 2000s, just as Christianity, feudalism and the Latin language were the binding agents of Europe a thousand years earlier. Everything else, including education, culture, social policy, the details of taxation, most transport policy and internal regional and local arrangements are matters which do not need to be removed from national competence. Leaving them there ensures a rich European diversity and allows local traditions and differences, which are among the most important aspects of human identity, to remain undisturbed. We are all Europeans, doing the big things together and agreeing about the important aspects of macro-policy. We stand in the world as Europeans who have made our peace with one another. But at home we retain our more intimate social differences and identities.

Achieving this requires Europe to end the endless journey towards an undefined and mysterious ''ever-closer union''. To that extent it could be described as a Euro-sceptical manifesto. But it also means the creation of a proper European constitution and that blueprint could be described as federalist. Reflecting the more limited nature of the core Europe proposed here, we prefer another name. Today we raise the flag and the cause of the European Confederacy.