Who’s for Paella?
Amidst all the wailing and tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth on the part of those who bemoan the UK’s decision to set its own course with Brexit, how many of those who regret the apparent breach with “Europe” have paused to consider the real identity of the “Europe” they seem to hold so dear?
To hear the way they tell it, the “Europe” they long for and feel such affinity with is the fons et origo of all that is good about our culture and civilisation. “Outside” this “Europe”, we will apparently be cut off from, and disqualified from enjoying, European food, art, music, literature and architecture – no more than a few lonely offshore islands, devoid of anything approaching European culture and unable to claim to have contributed anything to it.
I recall seeing during the referendum campaign a Facebook posting, from an emotional remainer, of an attractive picture of a paella, with the caption “And they say we should leave Europe!” Oh, the sophistication of the argument! No wonder mere plebs had trouble following it.
The truth is, of course, that British involvement in Europe has been with us for centuries – a multi-way traffic of great value to all parties, a continuing contribution from all sides to the continuing warp and woof of the fabric of European civilisation, and of particular value at critical moments in our common history when British intervention has been especially significant. As part of that Europe, Britain is not about to leave and British involvement is unlikely to cease any time soon.
The “Europe” whose loss so many appear to fear is not, in other words, the Europe of which we have been a part for centuries, but the European Union or EU – a quite different animal that is merely an economic arrangement, originally framed on the basis of a Franco-German deal to put together a Common Agricultural Policy to suit inefficient French agriculture and free trade in manufactures to suit efficient German industry. This different animal has unfortunately grown to display an increasingly mangy appearance.
Yes, it is true that the original impetus towards what became the European Union was the noble and commendable aim of saving Europe from yet another re-run of the German attempt to dominate the continent by military force. But so self-congratulatory has been the legend created around this deal that it is virtually no longer possible to identify or even remark upon what has been the actual, and unfortunate, outcome. The “European ideal” precludes, it seems, a discussion of anything so indelicate.
When the Second World War ended, the victors were determined to avoid the mistakes made after the First World War, and went to great lengths to welcome Germany back into the comity of civilised nations; and they eventually went further, by ensuring that the divided nation was reunited so that the full weight of a united Germany’s economic success could be brought to bear.
The deal the Germans were offered under the EU was that they should restrain themselves from future adventures on the condition that they would be free to exert such economic power as they could muster. The Germans magnanimously accepted the arrangement.
We need speculate for only a moment as to the different Europe we would all now live in if victors and vanquished had swapped identities. Fortunately for us, it was the far-sighted victors of 1945 who ensured that, with the exception of regrettable episodes of great violence and cruelty, as in the Balkans, Europe has enjoyed substantial peace and prosperity in the post-war period.
The outcome of their efforts, however, has not been quite what they had presumably foreseen or intended – a Europe at ease with itself. Instead, they have brought about a thorough-going German hegemony – a greater German economy calling the economic shots across Europe – without a shot being fired.
No student of today’s European Union could or should fail to notice the German domination of the European polity. Some – like the Greeks and other weaker economies – have had particularly good reason to take note.
It is German economic dominance that dictates policy to EU countries and institutions – and, for the Greeks, the consequences have been disastrous.
Encouraged by the apparent security of euro membership to borrow, the Greeks found themselves unable to repay when the debts were called in. Successive bail-outs have allowed them to ward off forced departure from the euro zone and bankruptcy, but the savage cuts demanded by the creditors have created emergency levels of poverty and unemployment and have so weakened and reduced the size of the Greek economy as to make it impossible for them to service or repay the borrowings.
The usual remedy of devaluation for such a plight is simply not available to the Greeks, for as long as they are part of the euro – and the masters of the euro are determined to allow no backsliding. All potential escape routes are closed, and the Greeks have been hung out to dry.
The Germans accept no responsibility for their initial eagerness to lend and they continue to rack up huge trade surpluses which by definition must be matched by deficits on the part of smaller and less developed economies. But the Germans insist that there can be no debt relief.
The only options offered the Greeks are further “structural reforms” – a euphemism for “free-market” measures designed to increase privatisation and provide opportunities to bargain-hunters – and further reductions in social costs such as pensions which have already been cruelly slashed below survival level.
The “Europe” in which Greece – and other weaker economies, especially in Eastern Europe – find themselves struggling to survive is the same “Europe” as we are invited to lament. It is a Europe prepared to inflict the most draconian of austerity measures on some of its most defenceless citizens, in the interests of a pitiless application of financial orthodoxy and at the behest of its dominant economic power whose self-defined interests are given priority over all else.
Perhaps it’s time we cast off our rose-tinted spectacles. Let’s just enjoy the paella.
7 February 2017