The Europe debate: What a choice and what a mess from our power elite

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Commentary by Derek Bateman

Save! Save! Save! Vote Remain for the best deal in Europe! Make your money go further. Compare the Market and see for yourself – Outside the EU means higher costs, less security and national weakness. Vote for Dave and George not Boris and Iain – back your favourite brand of Tory…

And if that isn’t enough, remember, there’s always the threat of Hitler if we stay in and isolation if we go out.

Derek Bateman
Derek Bateman

What a choice and what a mess. The EU referendum is showing modern Britain at its shallow worst – all self-interest and money-obsessed – the country that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, right enough. And look at the champions on either side. They are the power elite of the UK, the very people voters have been rejecting across the continent as a kleptocracy, grasping and greedy while ensnaring the rest of us in never ending austerity. Millionaire business bosses and unelected Lords are hardly regarded today as the voices of reason. There is a cross-party membership but in Scotland the public face of Remain is mostly Ming Campbell, devout Europhile and all, who is seeing out the end of his political career in the gilt splendour of the Lords and is now more enriched grandee than people’s campaigner.

Mona Siddiqui of the hypnotic voice, is from the Great and Good Register of Public Appointments with establishment credentials burnished on middle class Radio Four’s Thought for the Day. (I think I’m right in saying both the highly intelligent Mona and patrician Ming were declared No voters which doesn’t speak much to a changed Scotland). I suppose on the other side Tom Harris is a man of the people. Or was.

There I go. I wanted to write a positive piece on the EU referendum and can hardly get started without being led down the path of criticism. In fact, the truth is there is nothing you can say about the unloved EU that doesn’t carry the sense of either failure or at best qualified success.

To most people it is a faceless thingy that does stuff they don’t understand…and it’s run by foreigners.

From the inside (I speak as an observer) it is an infuriating rabbit warren of subterranean complexity, of decisions that turn to dust on the keyboard as you try to explain them, of groups of suited, middle-aged men referring details from one ‘institution’ to another. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to ask after a committee meeting: What just happened there? Only to find that whatever it was, it isn’t binding, it contradicts existing legislation and will come before the plenary in Strasbourg next month where it will be vetoed by Spain anyway.

SIMPLE

If you talk to the insiders they will laugh and say: Not at all. It’s really quite simple. And in a sense it is. It’s simple in the way a map of London Underground is easy to understand when it’s laid out in a stylised graphic on a poster. But get on the Tube and try to get around without knowledge and you’ll find it anything but simple. So I’ll stop this and think positive. Forget the EU we know and remember why it was born.

Until recently I used to think the story of post war Europe searching for a binding pact that would save the people from the unimaginable horror of another war was now officially categorised under Whiskery Old Tales. But I’ve changed my mind. First I still struggle to come to terms with the crushing of Greece by an EU led by Germany which, I’m afraid, acted in a bullying manner echoing earlier times. The relentless demands for repayments that will squeeze the life out of a European neighbour and set back for generations the social provision the EU was supposed to guarantee with higher living standards, benefits and pensions, painted a picture of a greedy powerbase blind to its impact. The behaviour towards Greece ignited a political insurgency that at times was revolutionary in its zeal. So far the rage has been contained.

oradour-sur-glane41Blame for the runaway borrowing and non-existent accountancy was laid at the feet of the Greek people but it was years of corruption by PASOK politicians and the pilfering of taxes by the rich sheltered by other European nations, that was the cause. The borrowing came largely from Germany whose lenders profited. The money bought goods from Germany whose manufacturers profited. The winner was the economy and jobs from which Germans profited. This is a Germany that never paid enough in reparation for the devastation of war. The episode was for me a distant reminder of how one-eyed and cruel one nation can be in dealing with another.

Then there is the refugee problem. This is what an organised group of nations exits to do – coordinate and cope, finding ways of working together on a shared programme to solve an issue. In this case, it is literally the lives of others fleeing from conflicts the EU itself, with its foreign affairs role, has done little to mitigate. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (now there’s a title) is the face of the Union’s relations with other nations. And it’s led by (quiz question coming up). No? By Federica Mogherini, of course. She replaced Blair’s Babe Baroness Ashton. Remember her? Still no?

Not only are these leading European politicians virtual non-entities, they appear to be little more than ventriloquist dummies on the arm of the American Secretary of State. Have you heard Mogherini berate the US for its Syrian policy? Or even the Russian Syrian policy?

FENCES

The result is that one of the foundations of EU policy, open borders, has been swiftly and unapologetically wound up by countries who prefer razor wire to reason. When people risk their children’s lives in flimsy boats, when they are tearing down fences, trooping along the highways with their world in a carrier bag, we witness again the symbols of conflict last seen in the Balkans and before that in the 1940s.

Damn. I’m doing it again. So let me put aside the people and practicalities, the errors and omissions.

I wrote last year about my visit to Oradour in Haut Vienne, the village left untouched as a reminder after the Nazis executed the population. There, in the church where the women and children died and in the garage with its rusty Citroen where men and boys were mown down – there you confront the birth of the EU.

Because at the heart of the EU lies an ideal. It is shared humanity. It says that rights to safety, peace and prosperity cannot be guaranteed by one nation alone. History shows that route leads eventually to war – war of ideas, of trade and war of arms. It says that richer nations should share with poorer to improve all…that we all benefit from raising the standards of the lowest. We do it by redistributing our wealth – be it money, expertise or care for others. The ideal is that the people of Europe, from Greece to Galway, have a common cause and shared interest. The ideal is solidarity.That’s what I believe.

I agree it’s badly run. It is past time it underwent internal reform. It screams out for a PR and marketing overhaul. It desperately needs a human face – not men in suits running from limo to glass fortress. It expanded too fast. It fails to consult the people it represents. It has lost any sense of why it was created. It can do so much better.

Yet the EU is much more than a market. It is an idea, born at the same time and with the same meaning as the UN. It isn’t a plan to destroy nations but to free them to do what they do best. It has brought protection of rights, the raising of standards and freedom of movement. It has made us better people by looking outward, embracing difference yet still standing together. Whatever errors there are and no matter the level of hubris, the bedrock of the EU remains the shared interest of the people of the 28 member states, their peace and their prosperity. Even if the leaders have forgotten it.

Sentimental it may be but it goes to the heart of the referendum – ask which way the people of Oradour would vote if they had the chance today. And ask the Germans who executed them…