In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you: John 14:2 (KJV)
My father was born in 1920. In the first sixty-five years of his life he visited what his generation knew simply as the continent only once. He came back with a bullet in his ankle and without his two best friends and returned only once more before his death to attend a wedding in France. And had it not been my wedding I don’t really think he’d have bothered.
He was none the less a well-travelled man who served his country in Iran and Iraq and Palestine, Lebanon and Libya too. He spoke fluent Arabic. But not a word of French.
Perhaps it began in writing the post below, and in recalling David Abbott’s thoughtful condolences on his death, or perhaps it was something in a chance conversation about the European Elections with a Libyan born taxi driver in Düsseldorf, but I do now find myself pondering, and for the first time with any real clarity I’m ashamed to say, some of the curiosities of his world then. And of ours now.
In his work for his country he was, so far as I know, but a small cog in the vast wheel of its confused if pragmatic post war foreign, for want of a better word, policy. He and his colleagues assisted in the drawing of lines on maps and the consequent rearrangement and indeed invention of nation states. They helped in the installation of despots and dictators and then in the necessary configuration of their chosen instruments of repression. They were but the complex means to a simple end: to keep the oil flowing and to keep it cheap.
In Europe meanwhile we had mostly done with our despots and dictators. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin had drawn the lines on the maps and in six, well, five and a half really, of our own rearranged nation states thought now began to turn to how best to share our own natural resources rather than fight over them. And so The European Coal And Steel Community, which would become The European Economic Community in 1957 and then The European Union in 1991, was founded by France, Italy, West Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg in 1951.
Yet in neither of these very different projects was anybody at the time really much concerned with democracy. Among Europe’s first bureaucrats in fact it was considered only sensible to keep elected politicians as far away as possible from anything of any real importance. At least until they had made some sort of progress on the task of rebuilding a continent whose nation states had now comprehensively trashed it twice in thirty years.
Democracy in one form or another would come to the European project later and one day even perhaps to Iran and Iraq and Palestine, Lebanon and Libya too. Or perhaps not. But before the Peoples of any of them would exercise their rights as citizens they would first fulfil their duties as consumers.
The United Kingdom Of Great Britain And Northern Ireland, The Republic Of Ireland and Denmark joined The European Economic Community or, what was then known in English at least as, The Common Market on January 1st 1973. They, together with Norway, whose citizens rejected membership in a referendum, had originally sought membership in 1961, but their applications had all been suspended until 1968 following The French Government’s veto of Britain’s application.
In the meantime France had also delivered an emphatic ‘non’ to both the idea of a European Defence Community and a European Political Community. The ECSC president at the time,Jean Monnet, resigned in protest and Europe’s bureaucrats began work instead on other alternatives based on economic rather than political cooperation.
But it’s certainly worth remembering that the EEC and its sister The European Atomic Energy Community were only ever really half of the grand design around which the original institutions of The Council, The Commission, The Parliamentary Assembly and The Court were designed.
It perhaps helps to explain why a European External Action Service without any military capacity looks more and more like a Scotsman without an umbrella. In much the same way that economic union without political union treats economics as meteorology. It was not for nothing that Adam Smith first christened his new science political economy.
While every market may in some sense be a community not every community is a market. And there’s clearly as much difference between a community and a union as there is between a village and a marriage. Not least, of course, in what you choose to share and what you choose not to. As the British, and others besides, would find out soon enough.
To add to the obfuscation, even after The Maastricht Treaty in 1991, while The Council, on which one ministerial representative sits from each member state, became The Council Of The European Union, The Commission, comprising one commissioner appointed by each nation-state to represent the European and not the national interest, remained The Commission Of The European Communities.
The members of The European Parliamentary Assembly meantime, which became The European Parliament only after a voting system was finally agreed and its first direct elections were held in 1979, are elected by nationally based constituencies but sit by affiliation to European political groups. So although their campaigns are largely fought and won on the basis of domestic politics their votes are cast according to decisions made in supra-national caucuses.
In truth the institutions themselves are not that complicated. Constitutional historians might prefer a cleaner and clearer separation of powers perhaps but, on paper at least, they represent a fairy efficient system of government. In theory it should work. And in practice it often does.
One of the problems though, and there are many more for sure, is that there is little agreement about what it is that it’s actually governing. And for who. While its legislature does much good and some very necessary work in areas such as intellectual property and internet law, its executive seems to mostly wield its considerable power to protect the community’s banks while penalising the union’s citizens. And while most of us ever know little of the former, all of us daily feel the effects of the latter.
And there lies the root of another problem. I’ve spent several years teaching, and many more practising, communication. And today more than ever what we feel trumps what we think and what we think trumps what we know.
What we know about migration, for example, is unimportant. Despite the tens of thousands of Iraqis,Libyans and now Syrians who risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean to reach the EU every year the fact is that migration between continents reached a peak thirty years ago and has remained pretty much stable ever since. No.It is what we feel about migration and how those feelings then make us think that ultimately determines how we act.
Successful politicians understand this truth innately. That is why we call the best of them populists. Successful bureaucrats do not. They have no need to.
And among those ex-politicians, or lapsed politicians; politics, like Catholicism, being not really something you ever fully renounce, who always seem to find themselves uniquely well qualified for the most lucrative appointments, well there I think we need only remember the wisdom of the saying that ‘to a hammer everything looks like a nail’.
For my part the simple truth is that, whether by accident or design, not one of the institutions has ever once succeeded in communicating anything at all that has ever improved my knowledge, influenced my thoughts or engaged my feelings towards it in any way. And no, anthems, flags and logos don’t count. And neither do banknotes.
Nor does it seem that I am alone. Last month 87% of Slovakians chose to stay at home rather than elect members of The European Parliament. In only eight member states did voter turnout rise above 50%.
We know little of our union and we think less. The surprise is not that the populists exploit our feelings so well but that they do not do it better.
In Poland, the country whose economy has perhaps performed best of all the accession states these last ten years, but where 77% of voters nonetheless still found better things to do, there is an idiom that puts the feeling well: ‘nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy’.
It’s not my circus. It’s not my monkey.