My apologies. It’s been a while I know, but I’ve been a bit busy lately. And, if you choose to work as what the Belgians call an ‘independent’, when busy rings the bell you let it in.
This week I have mostly been busy up the hill. In what the likes of Expedia describe as The European Quarter and the more skeptical Bruxellois simply call Gotham City. As it happens they don’t much care for independents up there, or independence either for that matter, but that’s for another day. And they certainly don’t do comedy. Oh, no.
On Monday, ‘maverick comedian’ Beppe Grillo won 25% of the popular vote in Italy by offering an online vote on the euro, albeit now an ‘unbinding’ one, free-wifi and a manifesto commitment to permitting the priesthood to marry and have children “so that they’ll stop touching other people’s”.
While at the same time Silvio, the lazarus lothario, rose again, so to speak, after a characteristically inventive campaign in the course of which he mailed some twelve million personal letters, each bearing a letterhead suspiciously similar to that of the Italian Finance Ministry and each purporting to ‘return’ the addressee’s last year’s property tax.
On Thursday, In England, Nigel Farage did a little better that either of them, statistically at least, offering less immigration, more prisons, higher pensions, lower tuition fees for students and lower taxes for everybody.
While the Italians asserted their independence by voting against the austerity prescribed by the EU and administered by its appointees, the English chose to assert theirs by voting against Bulgarians, Romanians and foreigners in general. You know, the people who are taking both their jobs and their welfare at the same time whilst overcrowding their prisons. Offering only pharmacologically enhanced horse meat by way of return.
The English didn’t vote against austerity per se, they actually returned an MP from one of the governing parties that’s administering it, but rather in favour of measures that they hope might insulate them from some of its effects by imposing more of it on other people. A sort of inverse solidarity if you like.
Like Grillo, Farage and his ‘kippers’ (and isn’t that an an insidiously cuddly nickname which somehow invites us to cherish their place in our lives as though they were a wholesome part of our traditional menu or some plucky northern football club?) offer an alternative reality. A world in which it’s ok to still believe in Father Christmas.
And why not? What else, after all, is really on offer from Europe’s political class?
On Wednesday, at an event addressed by a distinguished and knowledgeable (and that’s not always the same thing in this town) panel of journalists, commission officials and policy wonks they, and their mostly young audience of upwardly mobile apparatchiks, were depressingly consistent in their view.
That the event was hosted by an international public affairs practice no doubt coloured the debate a tad. But it was still a surprise, for me at any rate, to learn that it was apparently Italian postmen and Spanish pensioners that trashed the world’s financial system. Them and the Greek bin men as well obviously. And, if you’re English, Gordon Brown too, by building too many hospitals.
That seemed to be the gist of it anyway. While the degree of austerity and the speed at which it is imposed might be mitigated to some degree, depending on whether or not there’s still enough life left in enough Spanish pensioners to burn down anything too important, there isn’t really any great appetite for any analysis of the disease for which austerity is now universally agreed to be the only cure.
Like watching 19th century surgeons enthusiastically hacking away at their amputees’ limbs whilst ankle deep in blood you do rather wish that someone would stumble on germ theory sometime soon. And let them know.
To be fair I did hear the word ‘solidarity’ used a couple of times. By a very reasonable Italian voice from the commission, of course. But not nearly as much as I heard the chilling phrase ‘the political market’ and listened again and again to the seemingly unsolvable conundrum of what more could reasonably done to ‘engage’ its woefully irresponsible ‘stakeholders’
And there’s the rub, really. As of February 1st The European Commission employed 23,619 permanent staff. Or a little more than half the number of people who work for Nigel Farage’s local council.
18% of them are, as you’d expect, Belgian. 10% are Italian and 5% British. Admittedly the Brits came late to the party and for the most part have been hanging about in the kitchen with their coats on since they got here. The Poles, amongst others, arrived a good deal later but already make up around twice that percentage.
Wherever they’re from they are mostly the sort of people who an old Welsh friend of mine would describe as having ‘more degrees than a thermometer’. They are well educated, well read and well travelled. And like Nigel Farage’s local council they represent pretty good value for money. There, I said it. 30% of them are also under forty. And if Grillo’s five star movement achieves nothing else, by the way, it has already lowered the average age of the Italian Senate from fifty-five to thirty-seven.
What they sorely lack though, now that peace is a given, and prosperity’s gone awol, is any consistent and compelling narrative about what they do and why. Where exactly does Europe stand? And what exactly does it stand for?
Retuning to the Poles for a moment, it was Stalin who once memorably said that trying to impose communism on Poland was like trying to saddle a cow. Replace ‘communism’ with ‘austerity’ and ‘Poland’ with ‘Europe’ there and maybe you begin to have some measure of what’s going to be needed.
Gotham City, get busy.