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Europe's Elephant in the Room - Superstate

Mal Fletcher
Posted 27 March 2014
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“When there’s an elephant in the room, introduce him.” So said the late Professor Randy Pausch, an expert in human-computer interaction.  

Last night's radio and TV debate between Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP, and the leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg, was refreshing and unsettling at the same time.

It was refreshing because it saw two political leaders speaking as mature adults. For the most part, they argued important points of policy without recourse to personal insult or transparent simplification.

It was unsettling because, whilst it threw up some significant claims relating to British jobs, benefits, laws and approaches to immigration, it danced nimbly around the biggest issue of all when it comes to the EU.

In short, it did not introduce the elephant in the room.

Our current political discourse skirts around the question of a potential political union within Europe, or the emergence of a United States of Europe. Yet this is the issue on which the future of the European experiment ultimately hangs.

The idea was certainly referenced a few times in last night's debate, predictably by Mr Farage, but there was no exploration of how central this might be to a European agenda or what this might mean for its nation states in the long-view.

For my money, watching the debate live on the BBC, I thought the UKIP leader just shaded the Deputy Prime Minister.

I gave the win - if such a thing is important - to Mr Farage, on the bases of rhetorical skill and, strange as it may sound, believability. Doubtless, questions will be raised about the source of some of his numbers, but he gave the impression of someone who was very much on top of his subject, or his perspective.

This is, of course, one of the benefits of a single-issue debate for what is fundamentally a single-issue party.

Whatever one makes of Mr Clegg's overall politics and persona, he is now haunted by the ghost of Politics Past - aka university tuition fees.

That was my impression immediately the discussion ended and, at least in terms of the overall result, it seems I was not alone. An instant YouGov poll, taken in the first hour after the debate, found that 57% of sampled listeners thought Mr Farage had enjoyed the better performance.

Perhaps the debating points that aroused the most passion from the two leaders was the issue of legal sovereignty - particularly as it relates to human rights and employment. The conversation became particularly interesting when it moved to who is eligible to work in the UK and where in the world we are able to look for new skills.

Nigel Farage claimed that Britain is unable to actively pursue skilled workers in India and other fast developing corners of the globe. This, he said, is because it has to leave space for the many people from poorer parts of Europe who are likely to want to move here, and soon.

Whether or not his claims can be backed up with statistical proof was not made clear. Indeed, the debate format is limited in this way given that keeping an audience engaged means steering clear of dry discussions around metrics and projections.

Nick Clegg talked much about the fact that three million UK jobs are currently linked to our membership of the EU. (At one point the presenter pointed out that this claim might be based on questionable research.) Fifty percent of our trade, said Clegg, is also with member states within the EU.

Both leaders can be forgiven for repeatedly pushing party lines and sound bytes, though Mr Clegg was the more obvious of the two in doing so.

In the end, the debate was a success as far as it went. It left me wondering whether we might not get more substantial and revealing discussions if we went with this format for all political debates in future.

Perhaps we could have a system similar to a lot of sporting fixtures. Each two leaders might play off against one another and then the two who score the highest average aggregate in terms of public polling might go on to the "grand final" debate.

I know, it will never catch on, because the big two parties would stand to lose too much. Perhaps, too, the idea would be too reliant on personalities and the media skill of the leaders, which may not help when we're looking for more authenticity among our candidates.

For all the debate's positive points, though, the issue of political union hardly rated a mention. And this is, without reasonable doubt, the ultimate goal of many of the current leaders of EU structures. Indeed, on occasion they've been quite open about it.

I'm no economist - far from it - but I've never quite been able to get my head around the notion that we can have economic union, as represented by the Eurozone, without eventually seeing that morph into political union.

How can a currency be regulated and guaranteed except by a central power structure?

A great many Brits (and probably Europeans) are more than a little disconcerted by the idea of a full political union within the EU. They are, however, very comfortable with the current status of Europe as a trading bloc.

The problem facing us going forward is that political classes tend to believe that only politicians can solve big problems, via political structures. This blinkered and somewhat arrogant view leads to a drive for ever greater control and therefore the burgeoning of administrative systems and the people who service them.

Of course, this overblown view of the importance of politicians is not completely of their own making.

In many respects, we have allowed politics to move from something existing at the periphery of our everyday lives to something that sits near the centre of every issue.

The explosive growth and diversification of media and new media has contributed much to this. In the media, almost any debate or event is couched in terms relating to back to politics.

The tragic saga of the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, MH 370, is case in point. Within a very short space of time, the focus of frustration and questions had shifted from the leaders of Malaysian Airlines to the Malaysian government.

There certainly are questions to be answered at that level, but at the time nobody knew that for sure. Yet the bumbling responses given by spokespeople somehow quickly led to an assumption that something sinister must be going on at the top of government.

It's as if we the public must have immediate answers - we can't live with mystery - and it's the politicians who must ultimately give account for everything.

This can't help but add fuel to the fire for those who want to believe that politics is the supreme and central human endeavour.

It also adds to our frustration when politicians fail to live up to their own hype and hyperbole - witness the current low approval ratings for President Obama, once touted as a fix-all leader. Today, his legacy seems to be headed more the way of hype than the hope he promised to imbue.

For their part, top politicos - those who lead parties - tend to be drawn from a fairly limited pool in terms of their education and work backgrounds. Many climb the ladder from researcher or other assistant in an MP's office, or minor official in a labour movement, to representative politics, via a think tank or other politically-oriented appointment along the way.

This limits their understanding of the world beyond the corridors of power or administration. It also makes them more susceptible to the machinations of cunning lobbyists, many of whom have come up through the same ranks as those whose favour they curry.

It also makes some political leaders more prone to the delusion that without politicians the world would somehow stop spinning.

Taken as a class, there's no reason to think that the top plutocrats in Brussels and Strasbourg think any differently - particularly when one considers the cosseted nature of their roles and the fact that they do not answer to constituents in any meaningful way.

History is replete with testimony to one fact: it is never safe to assume that the bigger the centralised political structure, the more problems are solved.

Arguably, the longer the arm of politics the more problems have arisen, in a perverted version of "work tends to expand to fill the space available to it." The more politicians there are promising to fix problems, the more problems there are to fix. And the less the community at large takes responsibility to fix those problems.

In the wake of the crisis still facing the Ukraine, the EU must do some serious soul-searching. Vladimir Putin is likely just biding his time, waiting for the right moment to move forward with his salami tactics and his goal of rebuilding a Russian-dominated regional bloc, one slice at a time.

Europe must decide what form its future will take. It cannot present strong challenges to situations like the one in Crimea unless it knows its own mind.

Will Europe be a centralised political bloc, with little connection with the people it purports to represent? Or will it remain a close association of like-minded nations who are committed to each other for the purposes of trade and security?

In more than twenty years of extensive travel to many parts of Europe, I've come to the conclusion that Brits are not alone in being wary of a European hyperstate. Others also see the importance, in the age of globalism, of retaining a sense of nationhood and tribe - without far-rightist xenophobia or ultra-nationalism.

Yet in Britain at least, this is a subject little aired within the national political debate, focused as it is on mainly economic questions.

Unless we address this elephant in the room we may find our own politics trampled by a beast we fed but didn't train.




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