Monday, 22 June 2009

A European Voice

Timothy Garton Ash has given a fascinating interview to Der Spiegel. I say fascinating, because the language he uses is far blunter than anything he employs when, for example, writing in The Guardian. TGA's enthusiasm for the EU project has never been in doubt, but his comments here smack of someone letting his guard down. To judge from the occasionally strained phraseology, the interview was originally done in German and then translated. But the thoughts are abundantly clear.

Among other things, Garton Ash thinks:

- that Britain has two "social democratic" parties - Labour and the Conservatives. "David Cameron's Conservatives are taking (former Prime Minister) Tony Blair's approach, except when it comes to European policy".

- Mainstream politics in most of Europe has nothing to do with ideology. "Our governments are behaving more and more like managers. After 10 years, voters are dissatisfied with the current management, and along comes a new one....In each case, the voter is voting for a version of European social liberal democracy."

- It is "unsettling" that UKIP got more votes than Labour in the European elections.

- At the same time, it was entirely "rational" of European voters not to take much interest in the Euro elections, because they sense that the EU isn't a proper democracy, "nor will it become one anytime soon". He is of course aware of the possible connection between the undemocratic nature of the EU and support for Euroscepticism, but the only solution he can envisage is a full-blown United States of Europe.

- His explanation for the rise in right-wing parties is that economic disruption produced defensiveness:


Solidarity is certainly a European value, but our willingness to display solidarity also has narrow limits, especially toward the poor, and even more so when they are of non-European origin. This stems partly from the fact that we have developed social welfare states that are difficult to sustain, especially in global competition. The integration of immigrants in the United States is easier, because there is no social welfare state there.


- In the United States, on the other hand, he thinks that things are moving in the opposite direction. "Soon they'll be more European than we are". Barack Obama is "certainly a European" in social policy terms.

This is because the middle class in the United States has experienced the brutality and injustice of the unbridled Anglo-Saxon free market economy firsthand -- in the healthcare system, for example.


- On the success of "joke" candidates (such as the Swedish pirates, or the Romanian Elena Basescu, who is said to be her country's equivalent of Paris Hilton)

First, voters are saying to themselves that the European Parliament isn't all that important, so we can afford to elect a couple of pirates. Second -- and this is something we see everywhere in Europe -- there is a growing, deep dissatisfaction with the political class, to the point of a pre-revolutionary mood. The scandal over the expense accounts of British politicians we are currently experiencing is only one example among many.


- The cause of the Westminster expenses scandal was that "politicians, almost 30 years ago, lacked the courage to approve better pay for members of parliament"

- The "true European elections" will be those taking place in Germany in the autumn. This is "obvious", because Germany is "the most important member state".

- the European project is a "victim of its own success", because people take its achievements for granted.

- a "fully integrated foreign policy" is vital

- Henry Kissinger probably never said that he wanted to be able to ring up and speak to Europe:

We did a lot of research at this university and were unable to find a source for the quote. In the end, I wrote to Henry Kissinger myself, and asked: Where did you say this? His response was wonderful. He wrote: I think I must have said it. I just don't remember when and where.


- There's no reason why member countries shouldn't give up their independence in foreign policy. "Why should something that was true in the past continue to apply in the future? The deutsche mark was the epitome of German identity, and yet the Germans gave it up. The history of the European Union over the last 50 years is a history of impossible things that happened, after all."

- David Cameron's referendum pledge is a bluff:

If you were to inject a truth serum into David Cameron, he would probably have to confess to his secret hope that the treaty will be ratified by then. Then the referendum would no longer be necessary. I believe that, deep in his heart, he is not a euro-skeptic when it comes to Europe. The majority of his MPs and his foreign policy spokesman, William Hague, are euro-skeptics out of conviction. He has to use this rhetoric, especially because the UKIP did so well in the European election. And that's why it is important for the European Union that the end of the Gordon Brown administration be drawn out for as long as possible.


This is certainly in accordance with statements from unnamed senior Eurocrats a couple of weeks ago. It also accords with Daniel Hannan's Telegraph article, which posits the remarkable idea that Peter Mandelson was so determined to keep Brown in office because a snap election would undermine Brussels' plans. Mandy, Hannan wrote, "is destroying Labour for the sake of the EU"

In fact, Hannan's view of the EU is very similar to TGA's, once you make allowances for the fact that one is an enthusiast, the other a sceptic. Hannan:

The lack of democracy intrinsic in Brussels – the way it is run by unelected functionaries, the way it swats aside referendum results – has spilt over into its constituent nations. In order to make an undemocratic system work, they too must become less democratic.


Garton Ash:

I believe that voter turnout will not improve in the foreseeable future, at least not as long as we are not prepared to take the big step toward a United States of Europe, and toward direct democracy. Almost nowhere in Europe are we prepared to do this. ...

I keep hearing the same thing from a wide range of people throughout Europe: The parliament is a self-service shop, and the political class is merely there to pursue its own interests.


Both are far more up-front about what is going on than are most of our politicians

- TGA is happy to repeat the smears put about by Labour spin-doctors about the members of Cameron's new Conservatives and Reformists group in the European Parliament. "Farce begets farce", he comments, "Suddenly they're in bed with Latvian friends of the Waffen SS, Polish homophobes and Czech deniers of climate change". Quite aside from the ludicrousness of the charge, given the colourful backgrounds of some socialist and EPP members of the Parliament, it's striking how naturally someone of TGA's liberal credentials brackets climate change sceptics and people with traditional views about marriage with Nazi sympathisers. Nor is he able to understand why a centre-right but anti-federalist grouping could be an important counterweight to the preponderant integrationist push of the EPP.

- Gordon Brown "isn't a bad prime minister" - he just isn't a very good politician. He "looks ridiculous" on YouTube (fair enough) - because he "looks like a grandfather".

He lacks it completely. He hasn't even managed to simply come across as a direct and upright character, which is something Angela Merkel has mastered. He could have been the Scottish Mr. Merkel. But he's too Blairite for that. He wants to manipulate public opinion, and perhaps the worst thing is to try and fail in that endeavour.


- New Labour are finished. He would bet a magnum of champagne against them being re-elected, even under "the best leader in the world". However, "if this is its death, then it certainly had a nice life." New Labour leaves behind "a fairly substantial legacy" - though the only thing he can think of, apart from three election victories, is that the Conservatives "for the better part have adopted New Labour's approach".