Ever since Margaret Thatcher U-turned in the dying days of her premiership, there has been a kind of agreement between Left and Right on what the European Union is. Most Conservatives followed the late-vintage Thatcher. They stopped regarding the EU as a free market that British business must be a part of, and started to see it as an unaccountable socialist menace that could impose left-wing labour and environmental policies on a right-wing government.
As many critics have said, the Tory version of British nationalism that followed had many hypocrisies. It did not want foreigners infringing national sovereignty when they were bureaucrats in Brussels but did not seem to mind them when they were generals at Nato or economists at the WTO.
Tory nationalism, however, did succeed in provoking a reaction. Leftists decided to approve of the EU for the same reasons conservatives denounced it. Generally, we are against nationalism, because it incites groundless prejudice. We are in favour of minimum protections for workers and trying to limit global warming. If our government does not enforce them, we do not care overmuch if a super-national institution takes on the job. Better a solution of dubious democratic legitimacy than no solution at all.
Overwhelmingly you found people who understood the idealism that drove the European Union on the British centre-left. Most people in Britain do not because Hitler and Stalin did not occupy Britain. We never experienced communism or fascism as every country in Europe did with the exception of Switzerland and Sweden. British nationalism feels more plausible than its continental counterparts do because our state never collapsed before an invading army. Nor are we trying to escape a discredited past as the Greeks are trying to escape the memory of the Colonels, or Spain is trying to escape the memory of Franco, or Ireland is trying to escape the memory of British colonialism or Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe the memory of Soviet imperialism.
There’s a second reason for British exceptionalism that hardly anyone points out. Not because of a special virtue in the British, but because we have an independent civil service, corruption is rare here. In Spain, Italy, Portugal, France and Greece, the spoils system guarantees bad government. As the Spanish political scientist Víctor Lapuente Giné argued, in a mid-sized Spanish city, the party that wins local elections can give senior posts to hundreds of people. Their clients need to get rich quick, in case they lose their jobs at the next election, and a new set of thieves from a rival party move in. In these circumstances, government from distant Brussels can appear more honest than government by the crooks down the road .
Europe brings peace, then. Europe brings a break from a totalitarian past. Europe brings compassionate environmental and labour policies. Europe brings relatively uncorrupted government. No wonder the centre-left admires it.
The Euro crisis is breaking down old certainties. Looked at from an economic perspective, the Euro is such an insanely right-wing project it is a wonder British Tories aren’t endorsing it. It locks incompatible countries into the single currency. They cannot devalue to give their industries a chance of competing against Germany and the rest of northern Europe. Indeed their membership of the Euro drags down the export costs of their northern European competitors. In addition, their central banks cannot deal with unsustainable debts by inflating them away. All they can do is go along with EU demands for austerity and more austerity and see the welfare states and labour protections the Left has struggled for a century to build destroyed in the process.
If Greece were still an independent country, the International Monetary Fund would never have allowed it to fall into its great depression. It would have told it to renounce most of its debts, devalue the drachma and then impose austerity so it did not fritter away the benefits of its newly competitive position. Instead, Greece and the rest of southern Europe has had austerity and only austerity without purpose, without end, without hope.
As the cruelty of a 25 per cent cut in GDP and a 50 per cent youth unemployment rate drags on, as the absurdity of expecting a country to repay debts that no country could repay continues, the old, vague leftish assumption that the EU is a benign institution is dying.
Europe brings peace. Is that so? It is becoming obvious that you cannot have the economics of the Great Depression without having the politics of the Great Depression. Tsipras’s Greek Marxists and Marine le Pen’s French 'post-fascists' may seem moderate when set against the men and women who will come after them if this crisis does not end. Far from quelling nationalism, meanwhile, the Euro has incited it. People who were rubbing along perfectly well in the early 1990s, now look on each other with an emotion close to hatred. Greeks, Italians and Spaniards wonder why Germans, Finns and the Dutch insist that they must suffer. The Germans, Finns and Dutch wonder why southern Europeans expect to live off their taxes.
Europe brings a break from a totalitarian past. Really? It has created a currency system, which offers no democratic means of escape. Europe brings compassionate and sensible politics. Spare me, please. Nothing I believe has been more shocking to left-wing opinion that the failure of the EU’s leaders to stop and say: ‘We are good Europeans who believe in solidarity and common decency. The levels of misery our policies are inflicting on southern Europe are intolerable. We cannot carry on like this.'
I suppose the best you can say is that Draghi’s European Central Bank and Merkel’s Christian Democrats are not noticeably corrupt. But I would rather have a corpulent Catholic mayor, his pockets stuffed with petty bribes for services rendered, than an unbending Calvinist prig, who would drive millions to ruin to placate his merciless god. And I suspect many others would too.
The growing awareness on the Left that the EU is turning everything we thought was true about it on its head will have political consequences. In Britain’s case, the change in perspective will make it is more than likely that there will be significant left-wing support for a 'No' vote in the European referendum.
Meanwhile here and everywhere else in Europe the moral superiority, which accompanied the European project, will be attacked from the left as well as the right. The EU, which was once seen as an institution which pointed a way to a better future, will be denounced with the same venom as the United States was denounced under the Bush presidency.
As Europeans’ hopes of escape from a terrible past are replaced by fears of an unconscionable present, the EU will be portrayed, with some truth, as a cruel, fanatical and stupid institution. Unless, that is, it changes and changes fast.