Time: The EU model has run out of it

Forces are pushing for more integration as the eurozone crisis continues to burn. But these forces are mistaken in thinking the EU model has time on its side

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Is the project ticking to an end?
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Dr. Lee Rotherham
On 27 June 2012 09:09

Of all the friends and allies of European integration, the greatest has been Time. The Founding Fathers counted on it, when they set up a tariff union in the post-war world. It was Time that saw out de Gaulle. It was Time that has seen countless binned schemes re-emerge in classic civil servant style as soon as new ministers arrive.

Time saw the British opt out on the Social Chapter. Time nearly saw its opt out on the Single Currency go too. Time outlives the veto.

Patience for the European federalist is more than a virtue: it is a job requirement. Two current EU stories flag this up. The Government has announced it intends to revisit the format of the British driving licence, so that as well as the EU flag a UK symbol goes prominently on it as well.

The minister responsible is the excellent Mike Penning. But it might fascinate readers to learn that Mr Penning and I were responsible for flagging up the issue to an outraged national media when it first emerged, when both of us were working in Parliament for backbenchers.

That was in 1996. It has taken sixteen years for a flag to get on a piece of plastic. And that’s in an area that’s basically under domestic control.

No wonder the going rate for changing the size of a piece of mesh under the Common Fisheries Policy is ten years, and that it’s taken decades to even get the Commission to acknowledge that throwing dead fish back rather than landing them is a moral outrage. It will still take aeons and kalpa for anyone to do anything serious about it.

It’s said of Franco that his desk had two in-trays – problems that time has solved, and problems that time will solve. I fear the officials dealing with the CFP have such a desk. The problem will disappear with the fish.

For his part, and the second story, the Leader of the Opposition has come out with what passes for an apology on getting Eastern expansion policy wrong.

Again, I can remember being pulled into Conservative Central Office a good eight or so years ago to help prep frontbenchers for the debate. The Labour Government was blindly adamant that there was no need to do what many other EU governments were doing, and make use of a derogation to phase in when nationals from these countries would have access to the UK’s labour market.

It was a limited power, since it could only run for three years, after which of course our old friend Time would kick in and do its magic once more, but it would have allowed the Government an opportunity to recognise that major shifts in employment patterns were coming, and significant changes to our social security, welfare and even housing systems might be worth making.

Short-sighted Whitehall decided against this, and the result is an apology today. That apology is for a planning error a decade ago. Repent, it seems, also at leisure.

This is where my new book comes in. The EU in a Nutshell explores the workings of the European institutions – everything from the quangos to the Directorates General, via the lobby groups to the more exotic offices. It lifts out the interesting statistics, from allowances to wine lakes (these days more Windermere than Niagara).

I explore everything from the number of international organisations in which the EU now has a corporate membership in its own right (37) to the number of volumes held at the Central Library (528,000). I dig out quirks such as the fact that the group photo for the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has the team all crowded on a stairwell; and that MEPs under their health insurance plan are expressly forbidden from buying spectacles with non-corrective lenses in them, and pretending to be Clark Kent.

There’s a lot of fascinating information in there, as there should be for an entity that’s been growing, evolving, and legislating for such an amount of time.

But the book serves a more critical purpose. We are three generations from the war, famine and destruction that drove the Founding Six to set up the EEC; we are two generations from the economic decline and red flag militancy that pushed Britain in; we are already a generation from the rusting away of the Iron Curtain. If Time has been the friend of the scheme of slow federation, it’s also seen the world change. The imperatives that drove countries to join in many cases no longer stand.

At a time of Eurozone crisis, forces are pushing for more integration. But it’s a direction that made sense in its historical context, not today. We need to understand that the EU model has run out of time.

Dr Lee Rotherham is a veteran from behind the stage scenery of European Union politics. After researching for the 'Westminster Group of Eight' Eurorebels, he advised three successive Shadow Foreign Secretaries and was Chief of Staff to the Rt Hon David Heathcoat-Amory MP, British parliamentary delegate to the Convention on the Future of Europe. His latest book, The EU in a Nutshell is available now

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