Europe’s fine future as Greater Switzerland

There is a very different world on the horizon. A European corner in it that manages to keep anything like the standards and values of today’s Switzerland will be a superb achievement

Is the sun setting on Europe as we know it?
Charles Crawford
On 17 September 2012 16:36

Back in July David Cameron gave the nation’s Eurosceptics a stern warning: “If your vision of Britain was that we should just withdraw and become a sort of greater Switzerland, I think that would be a complete denial of our national interests."

Rory Broomfield had some things to say on this subject here back on 17 September. But the idea of Greater Switzerland also came up at this year's Riga Conference, and in a rather different context.

This time the argument was suggested that in the long decades to come the demographic weight of the planet would shift inexorably in favour of Asia, and that this no less inexorably would lead to a reduced role for both Europeans and "Europe".

Perhaps the best result for Europe would be to opt deliberately for a "Greater Switzerland" role: well organised, polite, sophisticated, but basically keeping its head down and not aspiring to any special global leadership role apart, perhaps, from in some highly specialised areas.

In a different way Croatia's foreign minister Vesna Pusi?(herself very much towards the liberal, “pro-Europe” end of the spectrum) made a no less striking claim. She argued that the European Union had changed significantly in years following Croatia's original application to join; now, under pressure of its internal crises, Europe's post-Cold War "normative dimension” had shrunk markedly; "talk of democracy is now almost embarrassing".

It's hard to disagree with her. The convulsive, far-reaching institutional moves needed to prevent the Eurozone from collapsing are incompatible with European democracy as hitherto understood. The ambitious speech of Commission President José Barroso on 12 September made it very clear when he called for a Decisive Deal for Europe involving a quantum jump in favour of political union in the form of a new “federation of nation states” (sic):

“Not a superstate. A democratic federation of nation states that can tackle our common problems, through the sharing of sovereignty in a way that each country and each citizen are better equipped to control their own destiny.

This is about the Union with the Member States, not against the Member States. In the age of globalisation pooled sovereignty means more power, not less. And, I said it on purpose a federation of nation states, because in these turbulent times, these times of anxiety, we should not leave the defence of the nation just to the nationalists and populists.”

This formation is intended to make possible in time “genuine mutualisation of debt redemption and debt issuance”.This appears to mean that European officials can take money away from successful disciplined economies and throw it at unsuccessful, ill-disciplined economies. What could go wrong?

Quite a lot, according to Poland’s legendary economist Leszek Balcerowicz. He warned sternly in Riga against relying on the outdated logic of "19th-century universities” and piling up a bailout after bailout instead of focusing on underlying competitiveness.

The democratic content of this new phenomenon as seen by the Commission looks to be an enhanced role for the European Parliament backed by measures to make European parties more easy to organise across national borders (i.e. a blank check for all those favouring more power at the European level) plus some sort of direct elections to certain top EU jobs.

In other words, a sprawling, opaque, post-modern bureaucracy issuing orders to European national governments, with a small, smug, supposedly democratic cherry or two sitting on the top to maintain the pretence that the whole structure is somehow legitimate.

If one thing is clear in this situation it is that the United Kingdom (with or without Scotland) is not going to be part of such a locked-in European superstructure. No politician of consequence will dare propose that we join it. British voters will hugely reject it, and with manic glee. Yet things are heading in that direction. Therefore what?

The real problem in Europe is that there are too many countries of vastly differing sizes and too few sensible groupings for them to belong to.

The current straining in favour of radical Barrosoistic integration of so many EU states risks creating complications that become dangerously unmanageable. That nonetheless is a good thing from the UK's point of view, as it compels us to start thinking hard about sensible alternatives – and deciding when it makes sense to lunge for them.

In practice the choice could end up being fairly simple. Does the European Union formally set up an "inner zone" and an "outer zone" with a structured relationship between the two and agreed areas of overlapping competence?

This has attractions, as it perhaps opens the way for sizeable but difficult-to-digest countries such as Turkey and Ukraine (and Russia itself?) and other smaller former Soviet republics (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova) to take part in outer zone roles without having to buy into the almost impossible task of meeting inner zone economic and political criteria.

Fans of intensified EU integration might call this a "two-speed Europe", but of course it does not follow that the inner zone is going to develop faster and better than the outer zone; if anything the economic flexibility enjoyed by the outer zone, free of heavy controls from Brussels, might be really advantageous.

Or does an "inner zone" emerge with a hotchpotch of other relationships with all the other countries that for one reason or another are unable or unwilling to join the vanguard group? This might be more likely, if only because it could turn out to be bureaucratically impossible to set up a two-zone Europe in a systematic way.

Such an outcome would be flexible enough for all the countries outside the "inner zone", but might be less stable and predictable: some European countries may start to find themselves drawn unhappily eastwards into murky arrangements that feel like Soviet Union-Lite.

One way or the other, José Barroso was right to point out that accelerating demographic changes round the world push us towards looking anew at where Europe and its states fit in to the wider scheme of things.

In 1950 the population of Pakistan and Egypt combined was some 60 million people, larger than but still comparable to the UK’s 50 million people. By 2070 (i.e. in the lifetime of our children) they together will be pushing 400 million people. Heathrow’s sixth new runway will be busy.

That will simply be a different (and for us now unimaginable) world. A European corner in it that manages to keep anything like the standards and values of today’s Switzerland will be a superb achievement, whether or not the UK forms an integrated part of it.

Charles Crawford is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, he is now a private consultant and writer: He tweets@charlescrawford

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