Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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Clever, modest and misunderstood

17 May 2004

The development of the European Union has been a quiet, understated exercise in compromise which Britons might be expected to appreciate if they were permitted the political head space to reflect upon it.

Flanders and Swann once unforgettably wrote:

The English are moral, the English are good;

And clever and modest and misunderstood!

Quite what the late, great song-writing duo would have made of the European Union is less certain. There is a single reference in the recorded canon to de Gaulle's efforts to exclude Britain from the Common Market in the early 'sixties ("This old man, he played six; France and England, they won't mix!"), and that's about it. Were they to be writing a song about the E.U. today it seems unlikely that the words " clever and modest and misunderstood" would feature. But perhaps they should.

Donald Swann was a conscientious objector who spent the war in the ambulance service in Greece and the Middle East; Michael Flanders was torpedoed while serving in the Royal Navy. Their repertoire included powerful anti-war songs (one of which, "Twenty tons of TNT" was based on a calculation of the amount of explosive weaponry in the world, per person). So they would certainly have appreciated the defining achievement of the E.U. and its precursors, which is sixty years of peace between its ever expanding membership.

This achievement should not be underestimated. European countries were either at war with one another or preparing for it through an endless succession of shifting alliances for as long as nation states have existed. The twentieth century wars were therefore far from unprecedented; it was simply the industrial capacity to wage total war that made them so appalling. The founders of the European project sought not, therefore, just to say "never again" to the Second World War, but to substitute co-operation for rivalry as the "default" mode in which countries dealt with one another. Given the historic legacy, this showed some ambition.

And the ambition did not stop there. Co-operation between nations would mean little if individuals were not the gainers from the process. So standards of democracy, accountability and human rights were built into the membership criteria for the European club. The recognition and acceptance of these standards helped to secure for Spain its transition to democracy in the aftermath of Franco as well as bringing stable government to Portugal and Greece. It is easy to carp; no doubt there remain plenty of dingy corners in the European stables. But the recent accession of ten new members, most of whom have re-invented their formerly totalitarian institutions to comply with E.U. norms, is a measure of the achievement of Europe in setting a universal standard. Meanwhile more countries are cleaning up their act, hoping to sign up.

So the E.U. is both moral and good because its members no longer make war against each other and they seek to maintain relatively high standards of democracy and human rights. And what is particularly moral and good is that most of this is voluntary. This is just as well, because, although the E.U. has a court, and lots of laws, it is not very strong on enforcement. It leaves that sort of thing to its members, being far too modest to do anything quite so forward by itself. The E.U. really is exceedingly modest. It's budget, relative to GDP, is minuscule, as is the bureaucracy that administers it.

Is the E.U. clever? Well, yes; it must be, because it has completely transformed the political and economic landscape of Europe with minimum resources and remarkably little fuss. To a Briton, considering the heat generated by the Europe debate, this observation may appear ironic. But that would be to forget how few determined impediments have been put in the way of the advance of Europe. Even la Dame au Fer herself was far more of a barker that a biter. She may have spent years demanding "her" money back, but she signed up meekly to the Single European Act, all the same.

What is particularly clever about the E.U. is the way that it rides out controversy and dissent. Like a super-tanker, it steams serenely through the waves, and takes an age to change direction; so little things like swings in public opinion have no impact at all. This structural inability (as distinct from unwillingness) to respond to transient opinion is an important reason for its success. It just gets on with the job, applying the admirably technocratic principles that union is better than dis-union, and what is good for one is good for all.

This is useful, sound work, against which the arguments and manoeuvrings of national politician are like children chasing each other round on the deck: loads of frantic and noisy activity while the vessel itself scarcely alters its direction. When really big impediments present themselves the great ship may take a few wide loops across the ocean, before heading back in its original direction but on a slightly different trajectory. That is why the present arguments about the constitution are so sterile. The constitution is another stage on the journey, but whether it happens now or comes a few years later in a different form is of little import in the overarching scheme of the voyage. That voyage continues because it is useful. If politicians rail against it, it is because this technocratic usefulness condemns them to the rôle of spectators at their own party.

So: moral, good, modest and clever; all of which leaves "misunderstood", which, in relation to the British public at least, may be overstating it a bit. That is because the word "misunderstood" suggest some degree of understanding, however faulty, whereas the British public have almost none.

British attitudes to Europe reflect a deep-rooted insularity and sense of difference. From that point of view the standardisation implicit in the European project is unattractive, which is why straight-banana stories always cause such a stir. On the other hand, "compromise" is traditionally regarded as a great British virtue; so much so that British parliamentary and legal institutions have had to design for themselves artificially adversarial structures that permit ferocious public debate between people (MPs, barristers) whose normal inclinations would tend towards a drink and a chat.

British myth-making celebrates a good "clean" fight; a healthy, wholesome approach made to compare favourably with an image of dodgy deals and mutual back-scratching in the smoke-filled rooms of Brussels. But fighting is precisely what the European project is not about. The deliberate polarisation of opinion for political advantage that characterises U.K. as well as U.S. politics so far from being "wholesome" leads to moral exhaustion and degeneracy From distortion of intelligence material by the Blair administration to the hijacking of environmental science by the Bush White House, a culture of lies and spin has been encouraged in which technocratic usefulness has little chance. As a consequence, necessary change does not happen. The consensus required to make constitutional amendments is so rare that aspects of U.S. law are still stuck in the eighteenth century.

Europe, in comparison, has achieved a huge volume of consensual law in a relatively short period by the simple process of plugging away at it. It is a quiet, understated exercise in compromise which Britons might be expected to appreciate if they were permitted the political head space to reflect upon it. But while the debate has the quality of onlookers throwing stones at a procession there is little chance of any real understanding taking root. As usual, Britons will just have to wait for it to pass, then join on behind.