From Anthony Robinson on a visit to Brussels and the Flemish cities of Antwerp and Ghent
Europe, or rather the European Union, started and continues as an elite project. Recognising the existence of the consequent “democracy deficit” EU draughtsmen set up the European parliament, which has got steadily bigger as the original six members expanded to the current 28, soon to be 27.
As this week’s AEJ sponsored visit to the Euro-parliament coincided with the start of the UK’s exit process it provided a great opportunity to find out how MEPs thought about the institution and its future.
In the UK at least the doings of the European parliament are hardly ever reported, and if they are it is usually in the context of Nigel Farage being rude to some Johnny Foreigner.
Maybe our trade is doing a great disservice to democracy by its lack of interest. But close up and personal it is very hard to imagine that this pharaonic building of huge corridors and acres of empty space, is a real centre of power. It is the place where some 780 MEPs from weirdly designed “constituencies” in 28 different countries debate, very formally, in dozens of languages and organise themselves into very broadly defined cross border ideological alliances. Just to complicate matter Parliament also regularly ups sticks and heads off to Strasbourg.
This is presumably so that no-one forgets that Alsace-Lorraine is once again part of France and that the borders of Europe are those drawn after the last great European civil war - which ended in 1945 with Europe in ruins and its fate in the hands of the Americans and the Russians.
Whatever the reason, the fact that MEPs are happy to continue wasting billions of Euros on this caravanserai is grist to the mill of sceptics who doubt the EU’s capacity or will to reform.
After listening to MEPs I concluded that detachment of the already long semi-detached and never fully engaged Brits is far from being the biggest challenge facing the EU. Of far great potential explosive impact is the need for reform of the dysfunctional Euro. The one size fits all currency has left Germany and the Benelux countries with massive and permanent balance of payments surpluses which reflect not only their more efficient economies but also the unnecessary, indeed harmful, Euro-currency under-valuation.
The southern Euro members meanwhile languish with slow growth and shocking high unemployment, especially among the young. Poor economic performance also reflects the labour and other rigidities of France and Italy in particular, but kicking the Euro system reform can down the road is placing undue power and influence on the European Central Bank. It is not by chance that the newspapers are full of the doings of the European Central Bank and not the European Parliament. For it is the ECB not the Euro-parliament which holds the power and calls the shots.
The other existential challenge facing the EU is the re-emergence in modern electronic form of a complex geo-political and military challenge from an ideologically and politically hostile Russia, especially in the Balkans which are not covered by a NATO security guarantee, and where incomplete EU expansion has brought Slovenia and Croatia into the fold, as in Hapsburg times, but left the orthodox Christian, mainly Slav, and Moslem Balkan parts of the former Ottoman empire still beyond the pale.
The defence of post-war Europe was under-pinned by the United States. But the Trump administration has let it be known that the US is no longer prepared to subsidise and underpin the defence of Europe, unless Europe pays its full share of the bill, and not only in monetary terms. How will the former communists, more militant Greens and single issue fanatics sprinkled among the MEPs cope with the demand for higher military budgets and greater support for NATO? I only pose the question.
Perhaps the biggest question mark however hangs over the future speed, and above all future direction of travel for the EU27. MEPs admitted that the EU faces multiple crises, which EU President Juncker himself admitted when he recently submitted a list of five possible approaches to the future.
Once the UK leaves MEPs from Germany and like-minded northern members hint they will push for a more dynamic policy, no longer subject to the doubts of newer members, such as the “Visegrad 4.”
What remains to be seen is where exactly an EU no longer moving at the pace of the “slowest ship in the convoy” will be heading. Some MEPs expressed the hope for a “better not bigger Europe.” It seemed to me however that the more likely direction of travel will be towards a more centralised, federal state, towards the United States of Europe dreamt of by the founding fathers.
But you only have to take the train to Antwerp and Ghent and wander around these wonderful monuments to Flemish, high European culture to savour the extraordinary richness of a Europe which is simply too culturally, linguistically and otherwise diverse to fit comfortably into a federal sack.