Fleeing the union Jacques

The Eurosceptical Reader - The Castle of Lies - Rush to Union - The Council of Ministers - Britain and European Union - Europe United?
February 14, 1997

There is a sort of ufology of the European Union. Christopher Booker is the Mulder of this EUology, and his Mail on Sunday column represents the EU's X files. There seems little point in trying to debunk the more extreme theories to be found in The Castle of Lies, for the "truth" is out there. According to Booker and Richard North, this is an all-embracing, Kafkaesque conspiracy, the "System", comprised of an evil partnership between Brussels and Whitehall. I should immediately declare an interest; I am a European Commission official, and hence part of the "System". I am one of the aliens.

The Mail stable's Invasion of the Body-Snatchers style can be great fun. It reached its zenith, perhaps, in a December 13 1996 article in the Daily Mail: "In the closed kingdom of Brussels, the Euro-moonies live, breathe, fornicate and conspire together. They have no understanding of us mere mortals but are hypnotised by the Great Leader. Their mission? It is simply to reorder the lives of over 400 million people ... whether you like it or not."

There is much more in this vein in Booker and North. At this level, if read in the right spirit, The Castle of Lies is an enjoyable browse, much like the Fortean Times or The National Inquirer.

But there is more to The Castle of Lies. The authors are perhaps best seen as latter-day pamphleteers; they exaggerate their case, argue it forcefully and are, well, slightly batty. But it would be a mistake to dismiss their arguments out of hand. There is another level to the analysis. Booker, in particular, has specialised in collecting unhappy case studies that illustrate the interface between the British citizen and "Brussels". Even discounting the more outlandish claims, these case studies do not make for happy reading. Where might the fault lie? The nub of Booker and North's thesis is the "proliferation of an ever more bureaucratic system of government, encouraging ever more use of technical jargon, paperwork, committee meetings, fancy titles and acronyms, arcane management structures, all of which in turn gave greater power and control to those most naturally at home in such a milieu, the officials themselves".

The authors chart the rise in Whitehall's use of statutory instruments (2,336 in 1986, 3,345 in 1995), and the "explosion in officialdom" necessary to monitor and enforce them. This, they note, is a generalised problem, not specific to Brussels (the Department of Trade and Industry estimated that only one third of the increase in SI's arose out of EC legislation, prompting the reader to wonder where the other two thirds came from). Even where "Brussels" is concerned, "so often Britain ... contrived to turn to her disadvantage a piece of Brussels legislation never really relevant to her in the first place". Moreover, note the authors, "many of the disasters being blamed on 'EC regulations' were in fact due to the way Whitehall civil servants were adding on all sorts of damaging new elements when they translated directives into UK regulations".

It is a long leap from this to arguing that Brussels and Whitehall actively conspire. The constant growth in bureaucratic requirements that the book documents may be exacerbated, or facilitated, by the integration process. However, perhaps because of their Anglocentric and Eurosceptical point of view, the authors fail to see that the phenomenon is not particular to the European Union but a seemingly inexorable corollary of the modern state. Booker and North come from the great British journalistic tradition of whistle-blowing, and it is worth the while of the reader - on both sides of the Channel - to sort the critical wheat from the polemical chaff.

The Eurosceptical Reader's offerings can be roughly divided into four categories. The first consists of recycled politician's speeches and articles. Martin Holmes has done us a service in making Hugh Gaitskell's 1962 Labour party conference and Margaret Thatcher's 1988 Bruges speeches more readily accessible. But what of a three-page letter Tony Benn sent to his constituents in 1974? Or a 1971 speech Enoch Powell delivered in Lyons? Neil Marten's 1974 No Middle Way pamphlet? Norman Lamont's 1994 Selsdon Group speech? In this context, there are some surprising absences. Where is Douglas Jay, or Bryan Gould? Where is Norman Tebbit? John Redwood? Michael Portillo? The reader soon realises that this is more an eclectic historical reader than a guide to the current debate.

The second category consists of recycled (mainly Bruges Group) policy papers and speeches. Kenneth Minogue writes about "National self-hatred and the EC", Peter Shore derides the EMU process, Martin Howe's perceptive but out-of-date essay guesses at the extent of British independence after Maastricht, and there are a number of polemical essays dressed up as history. A third category is devoted to a "Eurosceptical political economy". Patrick Minford doubts the wisdom of a single currency. Brian Burkitt and Mark Baimbridge try to cost UK membership. Brian Hindley fiercely criticises the EC's trade policy, while Bill Jamieson argues that the UK's trade outside the EU is growing rapidly. Booker tells us about that "System" again, and Richard Howarth draws a neo-Malthusian picture of European agriculture in the year 2000.

The fourth category consists of more general essays: Noel Malcolm writes wittily about the "sense of sovereignty", and Nevil Johnson writes elegantly about his preferred vision of European cooperation. But this category also gives us a strange contribution from L. J. Sharpe about British scepticism and the EU. Sharpe's main thesis is that: "European Unity in all its forms - Nato, the EU, WEU - has always been inextricably bound up with winning over the collaborators and ex-fascists to the new democratic order and diminishing their sense of guilt".

In his introduction, Holmes states that the main intention of the work is to "dispel the myth, assiduously cultivated over the past 30 years, that Britain's Eurosceptics are backward looking, nationalistic, even xenophobic "little Englanders"', but Sharpe tellingly admits that "there is a touch of xenophobia in the case". Why, then, did the editor include such a contribution? Indeed, having ploughed my way through this book I came away feeling distinctly disappointed. The editor had a lot of space - 400 pages of it; surely a more consistent, coherent and up-to-date collective case could have been made? In the first place, the 22 contributors do not agree among themselves: six wish(ed) to continue EC membership; eight want(ed) to withdraw or (pre-1973) not to join; and the other eight assume continued membership or are simply unclear.

While Max Beloff's learned contribution argues (fairly convincingly) that Churchill cannot be used as a "posthumous fighter" for British membership of the EU, this and many of the other contributions seem precisely to prove the charge of being backward looking. What is the point of reminding ourselves about the Commonwealth, let alone the empire? Britain's geopolitical position has changed irrevocably. In that sense, Gaitskell's 1962 speech is as irrelevant to today's world as Churchill's 1946 Zurich speech.

There is much of this wanting to turn the clock back. (Brian Hindley and Patrick Minford refer throughout to the "EEC", as though they could not bring themselves to write of the "EC", let alone the "EU".) Underlying the intellectual nostalgia is a more insidious phenomenon. Booker and North write of the "new totalitarianism". Alan Clark recently described 1997 as John Major's "Munich crisis", and related how EC legislation was being enforced by "an army of quisling officials". Withdrawing from the EU will, Booker and North assure us, "be the finest thing this country has done since we helped lead Europe through to victory over tyranny in 1945". More than 50 years on, it seems, some of us are still at war.

In his Britain and European Union, Beloff contends that the UK's relations with the continental European integrationist trend provide examples "both of genuine self-deception and of actual attempts to persuade the British people of things that the persuaders must have known were not true". This, then, is another, though far more elegant, conspiracy theory. I am always slightly puzzled by such arguments. After all, the various treaties and European Council conclusions the United Kingdom has signed up to over the years were not secret documents. Whether people read them is another matter. By his own standards, Beloff finishes his analysis on an up-beat note. By 1995, he believes, continental Europe had discovered that "the whole European federal idea had been the preserve of a small but powerful elite which had never thought it necessary to take the general public into its confidence. Now it was becoming a matter of genuine debate." That a genuine debate is being joined is undeniable and is surely something all sides of the integrationist debate must welcome.

The proponents of these conspiracy theories neglect the organic nature of the European integration process. Generations, and their perceptions, change. As Michael Welsh eloquently puts it: "Ever closer union implies a constant coming together, but there is no necessary end to the process, merely a constant balancing and rebalancing of our need to live together with a respect for the national traditions and culture which made us what we are in the first place."

Europe United? is, Welsh informs us, based on a course of lectures and intended as a student primer on the European institutions, as well as for the general reader. If it were only this, the book would be disappointing; it is not entirely up to date, it is less than comprehensive, it slips into the practitioner's jargon, and there is no bibliography. But these shortcomings are balanced by Welsh's shrewd insights into the way in which the EU has evolved over the past two decades, based on his long-standing and distinguished experience as a member of the European Parliament (1979-94). In Booker and North's terms, he is part of the "System", but he was always able to take a step back and take a hard look at what was going on. Read in this way, Europe United? is a rich source of valuable insights. He shows, for example, how the 1979 parliament's ingenious use of an unexpected court ruling was a reflection of British constitutional practice, based on precedent rather than legislation. He illustrates how the ambitions of the first directly elected parliament - effectively a new institution - were dampened by the number of incumbents who automatically assumed positions of power. He argues that the Single European Act's apparent boost to the Commission's power through the introduction of qualified majority voting was more than balanced out by the increased importance of the decidedly intergovernmental European Council. And the text is peppered with characteristically tart observations such as the fact that, although the member states can go to court against one another, they "prefer to leave the Commission to act as guardian of the treaties, rather than disturb the unity of the council by acting themselves".

In his elegant Rush to Union, David McKay argues that the EU literature has yet to generate a genuinely objective theoretical framework powerful enough to explain why, at Maastricht, 12 sovereign states agreed in principle to cede control over the basic levers - interest rates, money supply, exchange rates - of macroeconomic policy. His illuminating and refreshingly eclectic approach borrows equally from rational choice theory and the realist approach in international relations. He combines these borrowings with adapted versions of William Riker's twin arguments that the explanation of federal processes lies not in the interests of nation states but the rational calculations of key actors, based on their perceptions of costs and benefits at the time of the negotiations, and that unions between sovereign states form in response to perceived external threats. He claims that in the case of the 12 the threat came from "a near universal perception among political elites that the pursuit of any economic policy bar one which guaranteed low inflation in the context of open national and international markets, was not only untenable but would, in the worst possible case, lead to serious and potentially regime-threatening consequences".

The emergence of the low inflation paradigm and the convergence of the economic policies of the major political parties of the right and the left was, he argues, without precedent and represented a window of opportunity through which the governments of the 12 rushed at Maastricht, concluding a "federal bargain". He acknowledges that the German government's motives were different, although even more staunchly predicated on low inflation, hence the unrelentingly stern nature of the convergence criteria. At the same time, McKay stresses that the calculations of the different actors were political rather than "economistic". The Rush to Union is more than a simple analysis of Maastricht (though I liked his description of members of the governing council of the future central bank as "Platonic guardians"), extending to a history of more recent European experiments in currency coordination, from the Werner Plan and the "snake" through to the EMS and the ERM. McKay is perhaps unduly dismissive of the institutional reforms introduced by the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, which he feels amounted to relatively insignificant window dressing. Others would argue that they were important in their own right, particularly the introduction of qualified majority voting and the co-decision procedure.

In their different ways, these five titles make interesting contributions to a growing debate, but all ultimately suffer from a crisis of imagination, exacerbated by reference to past and present models. Welsh, for example, describes the EU as a "quasi-federation", and the other authors refer variously to a "superstate", "federal state" and the "United States of Europe". Ironically, it is left to Booker and North to point out that "nothing remotely like it has ever been seen in the world before". Existing models may illuminate, but they may also mislead. The EU is an organic political entity rather than a fixed constitutional settlement. It is emphatically sui generis.

Last and by absolutely no means least, Fiona Hayes-Renshaw and Helen Wallace have produced a valuable introduction to what is undisputably the most important of the European Union's institutions. The Council of Ministers is the EU's de facto legislature and its primary forum for intergovernmental negotiation. Having recently published a rival title on the same subject (The Council of the European Union), I should again declare an interest. However, on the principle that a rising tide carries all ships, I warmly welcome this valuable addition to the literature. Wallace was the author of several pioneering studies of the council, and Hayes-Renshaw similarly pioneered studies of the subministerial Committee of Permanent Representatives. This book is full of the sort of insight that comes from watching an institution, and the system to which it belongs, evolve over a lengthy and formative period.

Martin Westlake is associate member of the centre for legislative studies, University of Hull, and head of unit for interinstitutional relations in the European Commission's Directorate-General for Information and Communication, Brussels.

To order any book reviewed in The THES, call 0345 660890.

The Eurosceptical Reader

Editor - Martin Holmes
ISBN - 0 333 66942 8 and 66943 6
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £45.00 and £15.99
Pages - 410

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