Max Hastings – Daily Mail September 13, 2011
Put aside the crash this week in European shares over the nightmare that is the Greek economy, and the fact remains that the EU is in dire straits, unprecedented in its history.
All my adult life, I have called myself a pro-European. I deplored Brussels’ follies as much as anyone, but went on hoping for better things. I believed Europe was broadly a force for good.
However, today, I recant. After much agonising and hesitation, I adopt the conclusion that many of you probably reached years ago: that the EU in its present form has become a disaster, which threatens the future of its major members, unless its terms and powers are drastically recast.
The eurozone is merely the most conspicuous symptom of failure. It reflects a historic policy blunder by the rich, prudent nations that linked themselves in a suicidal currency pact with the non-serious countries of Europe, Greece and Ireland foremost among them.
Even the staunchly pro-European Economist magazine admitted last week that ‘the debt crisis is exposing problems in the basic design of the European Union’; that the eurozone faces a stark choice between break-up and fiscal integration, against the strong wishes of its solvent members’ voters.
Some of us used to argue that Europe has been an economic success story. Those who remembered the past poverty of Spain, for instance, rejoiced to see the country apparently booming, its prosperity exemplified by Madrid’s glittering new airport.
Much the same might be said about our western neighbour, the Celtic tiger.
But now we see that their supposed success — not to mention that of Greece and Portugal — was an illusion created by smoke, mirrors, prodigious subsidy and reckless borrowing. The EU’s generosity enabled tinpot countries to create lavish welfare states unsustainable by their own real wealth.
The pain of restoring their solvency will persist for years: Italians last week staged a general strike to protest against austerity cuts. Southern Europe can regain stability and credibility only by making a rendezvous with reality involving a much reduced standard of living.
Beyond the euro, a thousand other, scarcely lesser Euro-nonsenses blight our lives and prosperity. Consider, for example, the impending EU directive affecting 1.3million temporary workers in Britain. From October 1, after 12 weeks’ service, they will be granted identical rights and privileges to those enjoyed by permanent staff.
This can have only one consequence: to deter employers from engaging temporary labour — madness at a time when British unemployment stands at 7.9 per cent and one in five young people aged between 16 and 24 lack jobs.
Equally, a shop that wants to cut its workforce from six to five faces a statutory requirement to make all six reapply for their jobs.
Meanwhile, small businesses employing as few as two or three employees, lacking administrative staff and human resources departments, are drowning in a sea of paperwork.
The European Commission, supposedly a driver for commerce, has become a blight on it.
At a time when we face a historic challenge from Asia, the EU makes it almost impossible to adopt measures essential to strengthening its members’ competitiveness, above all the relaxation of employment law.This has become, for practical purposes, unemployment law.
But the Business Department run by Vince Cable, a Lib Dem Euro-enthusiast, declines to resist the new EU employment directive, though it would be legally possible for Britain to do so.
Another directive, a further example of Brussels suicidalism, is shortly to take effect in Britain: the so-called Resale Rights Directive, a levy that guarantees artists (and the heirs of those who have died in the past 70 years) a percentage of the profit every time their work is resold.
While this has obviously been welcomed by artists, London auction houses and dealers are wringing their hands.
Anyone planning to sell a work and who wants to avoid the tax will simply send it to be sold in New York or Geneva, where there is no such levy.
The big loser will be British trade: this country commands 50 per cent of the entire European art market.
Yet again, Brussels will have inflicted another savage wound on its own members’ interests.
Tony Blair fought off implementation of the Resale Rights Directive in Britain, but the Coalition has caved in to Brussels with contemptible feebleness.
Baroness Willcox, the minister responsible in the Business Department, is nominally a Tory. But her readiness to accept the new Euro art sales tax suggests that, in P. G. Wodehouse’s phrase, she is a spineless invertebrate.
Unless David Cameron intervenes personally at the 11th hour, this latest EU poison pill will take effect on January 1.
As for the disastrous European Convention On Human Rights, this was brought into effect in 1953 by the Council of Europe rather than by the EU, but it is deemed legally impossible for Britain to derogate from the convention while remaining an EU member.
I use the word ‘disastrous’ because its interpretation by the judges of the European Court in Strasbourg has had a host of unwelcome consequences for Britain.
The Human Rights convention no longer serves as it was intended, as a barrier to injustice.
Instead, it has become a rockfall in the path of common-sense in almost every area of human affairs.
Gipsies, illegal immigrants, convicted terrorists and criminals have become its undeserving beneficiaries.
Fear of human rights law causes employers, judges, ministers and policemen to cower in slit trenches rather than risk litigation.
It is hard to identify the smallest advantage for law-abiding British citizens from our adherence to the convention, but there is no will in Europe to reform it.
On another front, it is a mockery to suggest the EU can forge a meaningful common foreign and security policy when most of its members, prominently including Germany, will fund only derisory defence spending.
Baroness Ashton, the nonentity nominated by Tony Blair to serve as the EU’s first foreign affairs supremo, would be a comic figure, save that her office costs us millions.
As for the European Parliament, it has shown itself toothless as a scrutinising body for the Commission’s deeds and misdeeds, and is chiefly notorious for the expenses frauds of its members, far outstripping those of the House of Commons.
In its early decades, the Common Market was a benign institution set up to liberalise European trade. It is no longer so.
At a time when our major new competitors such as India are hastening to shed regulation and bureaucracy, Europe is drowning us in them.
Eurosceptics who warned of the disastrous consequences of the drive towards integration symbolised by the 1991 Maastricht treaty have been shown to be right.
Even if the euro staggers on — and Britain, too, will share the pain if it founders — Europe’s economies are stagnating.
Indeed, a new poll by the European Commission shows the Continent’s economic confidence is almost unprecedentedly low.
A friend once compared the EU to the medieval Christian Church: an extortionate, self-indulgent, hugely expensive and non-productive deadweight that European societies narrowly afforded until the Reformation.
The cost of Brussels has become insupportable. If we continue to burden employers and wealth generators, large and small, with its Utopian vision, only relentless decline can lie ahead.
The truth is that European institutions with huge spending power lack effective supervision.
Resources shared between 27 EU nations are distributed with reckless irresponsibility by unelected officials. Those who obey the rules suffer by comparison with those who break them.
France — to name but one — observes only those Brussels edicts that suits it, while Romania, Greece and Italy remain chronically corrupt.
Meanwhile, Britain is constantly penalised for its rigid adherence to EU law, enforced by our judiciary and civil servants
So what to do? The truth is that it seems politically implausible — though no longer impossible — to imagine Britain’s absolute withdrawal from Europe.
As a result, we are caught in a web of treaties, agreements, organisations and understandings so dense and interwoven it would be hard to escape from them.
I still reject the crude jingoism of the UK Independence Party, which ignores the practicalities of avoiding a breach with our vital trading partners.
And I realise that quitting Europe would engage us in a crisis that would sap the entire energy and attentions of any British government for years.
But it has become essential to repatriate powers from Brussels. This is not in furtherance of isolationism, but of the economic imperative to strengthen our competitive position in the world and repair our social fabric.
We must regain control of Britain’s borders, loss of which has inflicted wholly unwelcome social change. Almost incredibly, the latest net immigration figures are the highest ever.
If the EU maintains its present path, it is hard to see the structure surviving longer than another decade. Its failure will become ever more starkly obvious to the electorates of Northern Europe, who pay the bills for the chronic corruption and incompetence of the South.
Brussels cannot justly be blamed for many things that are wrong in Britain today, our educational system notable among them. Also, Germany and northern Italy demonstrate that, even within the EU, it is possible to have a strong manufacturing sector, as Britain does not
But fundamental issues persist: the EU imposes on its members structural costs, social benefits, consumer protection, health and safety measures and environmental rules, which are unaffordable in our harsh new world.
I feel embarrassed to have to admit I have been wrong for so long about something so important. A eurosceptic friend said recently, with some bitterness: ‘For years, everybody, and especially the BBC, has treated people like us as if we were lunatics.’ She is right.
I still reject the notion that Britain should embrace lonely isolation, enfolded in the flag. The closest possible trading relationship with Europe’s major economic powers is indispensable.
But membership of the EU in its present form has become a blight, imposing unacceptable social, cultural, commercial and industrial burdens and constraints.
With so much else to trouble him, David Cameron is understandably reluctant to precipitate a crisis of choice in Brussels.
The EU will most likely stumble on in its present form, crippled and discredited, exercising its dead hand upon members.
But revolt among electorates is growing by the day, about their politicians’ defiance of reason as well as popular sentiment. German as well as British voters have had enough.
Their leaders will pay a heavy political price if they fail to heed public anger and frustration.
The refusal of David Cameron’s government even to reject the new part-time work directive and the droit de suite reflect an indefensible infirmity of purpose.
Margaret Thatcher’s fears about the trajectory of the European project have been vindicated.
There seems little purpose in a referendum, the terms of which would be hard to draft and the outcome inevitable — a resounding vote against Brussels.
But if Britain’s government cannot find the means to retrieve some part of our lost control of vital national interests, we shall find ourselves mere fellow passengers with our EU partners aboard a waterlogged hulk, while the Chinese, Indians, South Koreans and Singaporeans power past in their glittering speedboats, leaving us bobbing in the wake.