by Bruno Waterfield
Sun Oct 12th, 2008 at 10:56:08 AM EST
It is a sunny Sunday in Brussels, so some thoughts on the European Union and that crisis.
The EU is learning a painful lesson: that its cosy consensus world of officialdom, diplomacy and contempt for voters, is not up to the mark when dealing with a full blown crisis.
The last two weeks have shown that the EU is better at puffing up fears about climate change, bird flu and other terrifying environmental perils than it is at dealing with a concrete problem that could lead to a full blown recession.
The EU has never been about abolishing national interests but always about managing them in a manner that is about convenience for Europe's political classes, with a heavy emphasis on consensus arrived at through secret and unwieldy bureaucratic procedures.
But as the current financial crisis has rushed headlong towards economic recession it is abundantly clear that institutions created for the benefit of diplomats and mandarins are not up to the job of stabilising febrile market institutions or getting cash (where it should be) into productive investments not dodgy bets on dodgier loans.
The problems the EU is facing are writ larger on the domestic stage, just as the European statist classes have embraced the EU, national statecraft has become dominated by fetishistic and self-destructive practices to which, we are told, There Is No Alternative.
The EU and Britain, with minor differences of degree and emphasis, have for over two decades been dominated by the liberalisation agenda, including a constant diet of "deregulation" (doublespeak that actually means more regulators) and privatisation (irresponsible horrors like the PFI).
This TINA agenda - totally dominated by tick box culture and the dreadful jargon that ensues when bureaucrats enter into a two-way Faustian pact with business - has clearly been more about states, such as Britain, ducking responsibility and outsourcing authority away from democratic accountability.
The proof? The EU, and the British state, are not up to the job of dealing with the current crisis, which is becoming one of global capitalism.
As Frank Furedi has observed over on www.spiked-online.com: "Their menu of options - raise or lower interest rates, nationalise or recapitalise failed banking institutions - indicate that their ambition is simply to carry out an unimaginative form of reactive fire-fighting. The present cohort of government officials, politicians and economic and financial experts are too steeped in the traditions of the good times of the past two decades to be able to take any really difficult decisions."
Since the 1980s the EU has built resilient structures, from the euro to the CFSP, to manage conflicts of interests between member states (especially the interest of a reunified Germany).
These institutions, the euro particularly, have survived well while the job was managing conflicts of member state interests behind closed doors between cosy conclaves of officials.
In fact by taking them out of the public domain they ceased to be truly "national" interests in the sense they became technical issues rather than about different sides in politics.
The unique aspect of recent events across the EU has not been the conflicts, always there, but their eruption into the public domain where interests assume a different more intractable character for the governing classes of the 21st century.
The EU's resilience is only fully operative if the process of negotiating conflicts, over the economy, foreign policy or whatever, bypasses the public, meaning that interests are merely differences between officials.
A national interest is a public thing. It is declared by politicians, political leaders and interest groups seeking to mobilise citizens behind them. The ultimate national interest is when we are asked to take sides in a war.
EU member states who have built up a decision-making process aimed at avoiding precisely this are ill equipped at dealing with real national questions, such as the clashes of interests which come to play during a recession, issues that require and involve the mobilisation of people.
The EU's response to recent referendums in France, the Netherlands and Ireland reveal that it is a Union of rulers united in mistrust of the people, not a Union of leaders able to take their people with them.
Economic stability and the absence of social conflict (that old thing called class struggle) to break the centrist consensus have been the preconditions for the EU's two decades in the sun. Both these preconditions are under threat in a recession.
If EU member states, and certainly Britain, are required to restructure the economy and cut public spending, Europe's political classes must push through lay offs and austerity.
Not a single country, certainly not Gordon Brown's Britain, has come forward to outline how Western European states are going to make severe reductions in current forms of state expenditure - someone has to pay for bail outs in a recession.
Nor has anyone yet set out how the government or EU vision for how the economy is going to be reorganised after the shake out of a recession, that means unemployment and lower living standards.
To do this a government must be able to mobilise against the inevitable opposition by taking the majority of their citizens with them in the national interest.
Just look at Britain. The out-sourced, privatised but supremely bureaucratic British state finds it hard to mobilise its own personnel let alone broader sections of the population.
Margaret Thatcher could restructure because she won a political battle and social conflict for the national interest (I supported another side in the class struggle). Can you see dithering, bottler Gordon Brown or any other weak, wobbling EU leader doing the same?
The British government (and the Green rinsed Tories are no different) response has been more of the same. More lectures about the need for taxes to rise, more moralistic environmental "nudges" aimed at reducing our irresponsible consumption but no answers to what needs to be done.
For over 20 years, the EU has been an elitist master-class tutoring Europe's rulers in how to do politics behind closed doors without us. This leaves them ill equipped for today's crisis.
Europe's ruling classes, especially Britain's, badly need "recapitalisation" and an urgent injection of moral and political capital and authority. The problem is the coffers are bare.
The EU referendums have shown how estranged political establishments are from their peoples, governments who have been long used to showing their contempt for the public have precious little trust or good will to bank on.