Volume 13 Number 6
A European Enemy Reading List
01 December 2000
Catherine Guisan-Dickinson reads two books which express diametrically opposed views of European union.
Most of us instinctively recoil from strong debates on controversial issues. In my state of adoption, Minnesota, USA, we call this human tendency 'Minnesota nice', (although it does not seem to afflict our outspoken governor Jesse Ventura). In my state of birth, Vaud, Switzerland, we joke that the Vaudois' response to tough questions is: 'I am neither for nor against it, quite the opposite!'
American essayist and ethicist Carol Bly reminds us that strong disagreements are not only unavoidable, but could make life worth living. In a humorous essay entitled Enemy Evenings, Bly recommends that controversial issues be discussed by panels of strongly opposed participants, with a 'master of ceremonies with general affection for human beings, not a chill manner or a childish desire to get the fur flying'. She argues that such evenings not only cut through the boredom and loneliness which avoidance of important issues generates, but even make for 'the kind of friendship people enjoy who deliberately, curiously, and civilly draw out one another's views on serious subjects'.
As I have pondered the political and ethical meaning of European integration for my doctoral dissertation, I have at times used 'enemy reading lists' to broaden my circle of fellow thinkers and challenge my own preconceived notions. The latest includes The Castle of Lies by Christopher Booker and Richard North (Gerald Duckworth and Co, London, 1996) and The Rebirth of Europe by Elizabeth Pond (Brookings Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1999).
In some ways the authors are writing past one another. Pond, an American journalist who has lived for many years in Germany, looks at the big picture, marvelling at the European 'chain of reconciliation'. She lists four 'miracles': first, the postwar Franco-German rapprochement; second, the rejuvenation in the 1980s which meant that German reunification was 'embedded in a larger European framework rather than bursting that framework'; third, the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire without bloodshed in 1989; and fourth, the 'new energy on the continent' to build a prosperous and peaceful European Union (EU). British journalists Christopher Booker and Richard North remind their readers that the devil is in the detail. Far from looking at the big picture, they relentlessly document the infringements of freedom and common sense caused by countless EU regulations, building a strong case for Britain 'getting out' of Europe.
Pond's ambitious overview covers the successful launching of the European Monetary Union (EMU), the process of enlargement to Eastern and Central Europe, the relationship between the EU and the US, and NATO's evolution. She argues that the desire to join both the EU and NATO has prodded the 'Western Slavs'--Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and the Baltic countries--into settling border disputes, establishing solid democracies and adopting market economies.
In spite of the doomsday predictions of American economists, by 1998 11 countries had qualified to join the EMU, fulfilling the economic criteria with a 'minimum of creative accounting'. Because the highest benchmark became the common denominator, this process forced Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece to reform their economies. Pond also argues that the EC boosted the self-confidence of the Republic of Ireland by providing an alternative orientation to England--and that this enabled it to sign the 1998 peace settlement.
Pond calls the relationship between the EU and the US a 'delicate game of coopetition' (mix of interdependence and rivalry). The US is the dominant partner in the defence area, but the EU gives far more in humanitarian aid. She urges the US and the EU to live up to 'the grace of miracles' granted by history in spite of their differences.
Booker's and North's The Castle of Lies is an invitation to understand the 'system', a 'horrifying' bureaucratic entanglement of Whitehall and Brussels which has affected British lives and many businesses for the worse. The authors report countless cases of nonsensensical EU regulations, too often made more intrusive by British bureaucrats who dislike admitting or correcting any mistakes.
They cite the 3,000 older lorry drivers threatened with the loss of their jobs when a new EC directive required them to pass their driving test without glasses or contact lenses, on the grounds that their glasses might fall off in a collision. Meanwhile, on the continent, older drivers with comparable eyesight continued to drive thanks to the system of 'grandfather rights' abolished by British administrators. At times even regulations or directives not on the books are invoked: a pub in Surrey renamed its Yorkshire puddings 'yorkies', having mistakenly been told by a trading standards official that it was a criminal offence to call something a Yorkshire pudding which had not actually been made in Yorkshire.
Other chapters describe more notorious abuses such as those due to the Common Fisheries Policy, which Spain cleverly turned to its advantage forcing thousands of British fishermen out of work. The authors also criticize the Common Agricultural Policy which succeeded in making Europe self-sufficient in food production, but increased the prices for consumers and caused serious overproduction. Metrication is another problem; so is the VAT tax system, and, of course, the BSE beef crisis 'which was spun out of nothing'.
But the most damning thing of all, according to the writers, is that British politicians have become the 'ghostly servants' of the system, condemned to rubber-stamp decisions prepared by Brussels' civil servants. The John Major Government decided that MPs could not read the Maastricht Treaty in full until they had voted it through, and 'ruthless behind-the-scene pressures' were applied to make them ratify.
Booker and North do not explain adequately why British political leaders and administrators have been so much poorer in defending their people's interests than Spanish, Greek and Portuguese. One reason, of course, is that British civil servants enforce regulations that their colleagues in other countries may glibly ignore. But this does not explain the excessive zeal which in one instance transformed a 34-line EU regulation on fire safety into 120 pages of regulations and explanation.
Booker and North conclude that Britain must get out of the system. They maintain that 'this will be the finest thing this country has done since we helped lead Europe through to victory over tyranny in 1945'.
'Enemy reading lists' are never comfortable. My Swiss-Greek post World War II background and my scholarly research incline me towards Pond. I cannot but marvel at the new-found confidence of small countries like Portugal and Finland which give leadership to Europe on such tough issues as the conclusion of the Kosovo War or major tax disputes, and at the willingness of large countries like France and Germany to submit themselves to a common authority. International peace is messy, as the never-ending negotiations among EU partners demonstrate, but with Bly I believe that conflicts are a sign of life rather than of a terminal illness.
I felt compelled, however, to give The Castle of Lies a careful read, and I am glad I did. To some extent the two arguments are complementary rather than contradictory. Pond mentions but does not address the 'democratic deficit' and the regulatory excesses of the EU. In this respect Booker and North do useful investigative work. Their many stories of people fighting the bureaucracy could energize EU citizens into taking action when the system abuses them.
On the other hand the two authors' point of view is relentlessly British-centred. Britain's 14 EU partners are only mentioned when they have harmed Britain's interests. As for Ireland, it is pro-EU because of the big subsidies it received. There is no acknowledgement that the system also enables a modest but deliberate redistribution of resources from richer to poorer countries, which helped raise the average income in Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain from 66 per cent of the EU average in 1983 to 74 per cent in 1995.
Nor is it true that the EU supported Milosevic's policies and ignored Central and Eastern Europe. The programmes for enlargement may be criticized for being too slow or not generous enough, but they were already being implemented when The Castle of Lies was published.
Both books highlight the view held by some influential Americans and Britons that continental Europeans cannot be trusted when it comes to politics and economics, especially in times of crisis. Pond argues against 'funereal' US perceptions of Europe while Booker and North confirm them. In my mind is another question, though. What kind of relationship do the US and Britain want to maintain with the Europe they helped liberate 50 years ago and to what purpose?
In contrast with Pond, Booker and North have little to say on this. Strangely enough, their harsh critique of the EU makes Britain look equally bad. The metrication system is too hard for British policemen to master, British diplomats and political leaders are bumbling amateurs constantly taken in by treacherous continentals. Where are the British, courageous, resourceful and witty whom I know and enjoy?
I must admit that I expect more from Britain than Booker and North, and I know from my 40-plus interviews with continental EU leaders that this feeling is shared by many others. Why could Britain not draw on the capacity for sacrificial involvement and leadership which it demonstrated during the war years to help reform the 'system'? This might be even more taxing than helping 'lead Europe through to victory', but it could yet be the finest thing Britain has done since 1945.