Monday, September 13, 2010

Britain and the heart of Europe, in 2005 (and today)

The following three part analysis was written in late June - early July 2005, in view of the UK's Presidency of the EU (second semester of 2005).

I think it is quite relevant for Britain and for the EU 5 years later. How relevant? That is for you to say!

Britain and the heart of Europe

Some years ago, Mr. Tony Blair appeared to be the man who would take Britain to the heart of Europe.

An island, now connected to the mainland of the European continent via an underwater tunnel (Channel Tunnel), Britain and with Northern Ireland constitute the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Since the end of business day, June 17, 2005, Tony Blair seems a very unlikely person to lead Britain to the heart of Europe (or is it the heart of the EU)?

The UK joined the European Communities (Economic, Atomic and Carbon and Steel) in the early seventies, having had many qualms about it.

With the then entry of the UK, Ireland and Denmark, the EC moved from 6 to 9 members (the original six were Germany, France, the Benelux three and Italy). It was the first enlargement of the EC, since its founding (Treaty of Rome). The next country to join was Greece, in the early eighties, leading the way for two more Southern European countries, the Mediterranean Spain and the Atlantic Portugal.

Four countries, the Southern three, Portugal, Spain, Greece along with Ireland, became the main recipients of the EC Structural-Regional funds. As well as the Italian South. This aid was tied to a new, then project, the "1992" - Single EU Market, which was a step up from the initial goal of the "Common Market".

Many people, especially in the UK, still referred to the European Economic Community as the "Common Market". Some, still do.

The integration of Europe via economics was going hand-in-hand with the aim to avoid a new World War, hence the co-operation (Communities) in carbon and steel and atomic energy.

In the eighties, the Common Market goal was replaced with a 'Single Market' goal. What is the difference?

Firstly, a market of 12 (then 15) rather than 6 countries. Without any tariffs and without any border controls for the trade of goods.

Intra-community trade made much easier, via a more level playing field, a 'single' one, which meant a large number of regulations and directives in order to streamline product standards within the Single Market.

Why? Because for trade to be as free as possible, product standards have to be either mutually recorgnised and accepted or merged into a single one!

For example, does an Italian consumer need a different product standard than a British one in order to be protected/safe?

That is a key philosophical, stretegic and policy issue, even today!

Does, for example, a Polish patient in Poland get a lower standard of medical support than a British or French one? That is an issue dealt, inter alia, by the infamous/famous "Services Directive" of the EU, which is still stuck in the EU's pipeline, and which Tony Blair was/is keen to promote for adoption during his chairmanship of the EU Council from July to December 2005.

Tony Blair's ambition to lead the EU may have been seriously sidetracked in the "collapsed" recent EU Summit over his leadership in not reaching an agreement over the EU budget for 2007-2013 (along, reportedly, with the Netherlands and Sweden, as well as Finland and Spain).

Is this upcoming UK presidency a real opportunity to take Britain to the heart of Europe?

That is a complex matter, actually. Because, inter alia:

Where is the heart of Europe?

Are we talking about the heart of Europe or the heart of the EU?

Are we talking about the economic, political, social, "power", cultural, scientific or some other kind of heart?

If we are talking about the economic, are we talking about the business heart or the financial heart, or both? The business of industry, of trade an/or of services? Of jobs?

Of tangible or of intangible (intellectual) products, such as music, film, etc.?

In terms of his appeal as a leader of Britain, Mr. Blair's win in the national elections in May came at a much narrower margin than his previous two. Whereas that would be somewhat natural for any leader running for a third consecutive win (only matched by the now Baroness Thatcher in recent UK times), it is the Iraq policy and style driven factor which seem to have put a dent in Mr. Blair's national appeal, compared to years past.

Yet Tony Blair is the man, the person, the leader, who assumed the leadership of his party following a) the surprise defeat of the favourite Labour in the early nineties (1992), under Neil Kinnock and b) the sudden passing, in 1994, of the late John Smith (after only a brief, 2-year, tenure at the helm of the Labour party).

It is none other than the then Home Affairs spokesperson of the Labour Party, Tony Blair, who won the leadership contest and proceeded to re-engineer the trade-union dominated party into a moderate Social-Democratic party. It is Tony Blair who followed the steps of Bill Clinton in "stealing" a major portion of the political/policy agenda of his conservative opponents and merging it with a new 'social' agenda, into a nouveau political agenda which captured the hearts and minds of enough Britons a few years later, giving this party a win of "sismic" proportions over the Tories!

Tony Blair's 'New Labour' may have alienated many traditional Labour members (just like Clinton's centrist agenda led, somewhat to the Nader candidacy in 2000, and Bush's narrowest-of-all-possible-margins-and-then-some victory over Al Gore).

But it gained the votes of many moderate and even conservative UK voters.

Gerhard Schroeder, in Germany, did a little bit of the same, following the rein of Helmut Kolh! So did some other 'neo-social' leaders in other European countries.

How successfull was the Clinton "third way-ish" political strategy recipe in Europe?

Oh, that is another complex and very interesting matter!

But this analysis is about the heart of Europe (or the EU) and Tony Blair's and Britain's journey towards it!

And like many other journeys, it has more than one "etapes" (stages).

End of Part I


Britain and the heart of Europe - Part II

Britain's attempt to "relocate" to the political heart of Europe was never easy. Blame it on the backbenchers, blame it on the perennial feeling of any island towards the continent, blame it on many Englishmen's and Englishwomen's antipathy for any bureaucracy other than their precious own ("I don't want to be governed by Brussels but by Westminster"), blame it on many other factors.

It appears that many, many, Britons never wanted anything more than the Common Market membership (after ... the World Cup 1966 title!). Their national football team may not have had much European or World Cup success, other than 1966, but Liverpool and Nottingham Forest managed to go to the top of European club football many times until the 1985 Heyzel trouble, in (of all places).... Brussels!

No wonder then why many Britons have some kind of antipathy to the word "Brussels". Not with Belgium or the city itself.

After all,

Mrs. Agatha Christie's Hercules Poirot is a most 'sympa' (well liked) Belgian.

Belgium has many Ministries for each policy area (national, Flemish, Waloon, French-speaking, Flemish speaking, etc.).

But it is not Belgian bureaucracy that most Britons "hate". It is the Eurocratic one! One which, actually, employs many Britons. One which was, in effect, run by a Briton, for many years!

Maybe the UK's antipathy to the administrative EU machine can be explained by the theory that Britons are more than willing to co-habitate or co-work (or play) with all other Europeans, as long as it is under their own administrative system! After all, the British admin system is seen by many as exemplary! So why should they be willing to give up a prize system for a Babel-ish and very fuzzy one? Maybe they have a rational point there!

But the UK has never (dared) put forward the demand that the EU uses its own admin system!

Just as it has never, as far as the writer knows, actually asked for English to become the single working language of the EU. Or the only official one!

Maybe the UK should.

Instead, the UK has more or less always (since membership) been wishy-washy about Europe! "Yes, we want to be a part of it, but not too much". "Too much of what", one could ask them! That may indeed be the problem: What is "Europe"? How can one have too much or too little of something some ... vague?

On the other hand, French politics have always declared their utmost commitment to Europe, the ECs and now the EU. And, having done that, they always proceed to demand "the world" out of Europe. Leading, inter alia, to the famous "empty chair" crisis with Charles de Gaulle (when he abstained, in protest, from European Summits).

Europe's history is long, glorious, epic, tragic and zany. Case in point. It was Mrs M. Thatcher's insistence to veto other Commission presidency candidates which led to the eventual compromise candidacy and election of ... Jacques Delors in the mid 1980s!

Yes, The Jacques Delors, the Frenchman, the socialist, whose vision took the Common Market and turned it into an European Union! Mais oui, mes amis!

Yes, the EEC may have been constructed in Rome to aid Franco-German good neighbourly co-existence and friendship through economic and other co-operation, but it is thanks to a Briton that a Frenchman came to the position to take Europe into a level only some of its original visionaries had imagined (it was France too that in effect blocked creation of the 4th European Community, the Political, one, back in the 1950s).

It is the French who almost voted down the Maastricht Treaty (50.2% vs. 49.8%) in the nineties.

Yet it is usually the British who are 'credited' with many delays and setbacks in European integration! How fair is that?

As fair as a free trade area without a social arm?

As amazing as Eric Cantona's epic with Manchester United?

As amazingly international as the lineups in most of England's Premier League clubs?

As amazing as to think that England's head coach is Swedish!

Is the UK's role in the heart of Europe's affairs offset by its ambition to be near the heart of the center (centre) of the world, of the globe, of global affairs?

How come these two goals cannot be streamlined?

It is Europe's doing or is it Britain's?

Does Europe really want to become the center of the world? Can it? Is the US simply too powerful to be overcome at the top of the global "charts" or is Britain simply too ambitious to let an under-performing Europe "drag" it away from the center across the Atlantic? A former colony of the Great Britain, after all! One which a Frenchman, Marquis Lafayette, helped become autonomous!

Maybe Europe, not just the UK, has too much history to have a real ambitious present or future!

After all, the main reason English should, rationally, be the only lingua franca of the EU, is the US, after World War II! Do not blame the UK for that reality too! If the US had opted for French or Greek instead of English, as its official language, then maybe today English would not be the dominant language in Europe and the whole world. But it is! Who is to blame for that? In any case, not the British!

Plus, is it Britain's fault that its bureaucracy is viewed as exemplary by many countries? That consultants are paid hefty sums to export the British public admin model to other countries, either with EU or national funding (by the client countries)?

Is it Britain's fault that the mainly anglosaxon economic model of liberalism, with American add-ons, is the dominant one in the world today?

This brings us to the end of "etape deux" of this "trilogic" (three part) analysis!

End of Part II


Britain and the heart of Europe - Part III

So which heart of Europe/EU is Tony Blair or another British leader supposed to take Britain to (this issue has been left unresolved since Part I)?

The UK is always one of the three who form a triange (triad) of power in the EU, judging by the frequent bilateral Summits between the leaders of France, Germany and Britain!

The Dutch (third biggest net contributor to the EU budget, above France), the Italians (large country and one of the 6 founders), Spain (another large country, in populus), etc. do not have such priviledges! The UK is in the triad. So, is it not in the heart of the EU's political hyper-power?

Is the journey to the heart of the EU project hampered then, simply, by the UK's geography?

Are the UK and Ireland Europe's natural bridges with the cross-Atlantic powers, due to geography and language?

Does this not give them extra power in the EU, too, compared let's say to Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, etc.?

Plus, the fact that to work in a country's job market you usually have to speak its language, does this not make the UK job market very attractive to most of the citizens of the EU who wish to work in a job market other than their native one, in the EU (not including, of course, the option of working for one of the EU's institutions)?

How fair is this competition to the UK worker, compared let's say to the French, the Italian, the Spanish, etc.?

For example, to work in the Belgian non-EU institutions related (directly or indirectly) job market, a non-Belgian has normally, to speak both French and Dutch! How easy it that?

The UK (and Ireland) offers its job markets to all other EU citizens! Should this not be appreciated?

Does this not make Britain "the heart" of the ex-pat market for jobs in the EU?

So, will Tony Blair be the man who takes Britain to the heart of the EU?

Heart implies emotion! Arts! Whose music is the EU listening to (in terms of intra-EU generated music)? Britain's!

Are the UK's underperformance in national teams' football and the Eurovision song contest key factors in creating the emotional aspect of the UK's anti-Europe perception? Probably not!

But we have strayed away from the original topic. Britain and the heart of Europe! The topic in not Europe and the heart of Britain!

Europe likes Britain. It buys its products, its music, watches more and more of its movies and other cultural products, watches BBC World, hears its BBC World Service, loves Man. United, Liverpool, and many other of its football teams, adores Mr. and Mrs. Beckham.

Does Europe like the UK's political leaders? Well, each country likes or dislikes its own leaders!

Does the European voter had/have Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Michael Howard, or the LibDems' Charles Kennedy near his or her heart?

Why should he/she? He/she does not get to vote for any of them anyway! So how can one, rationally, have close to his or her heart a political figure one cannot vote for or against?

That is the Catch 22 of the EU and of the way to its "heart"!

Actually, it is Catch 25!


Nick Panayotopoulos, June-July 2005

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