The European Union on Mount Doom.

Never mind the Nazgul shriek from Brussels. The EU’s current arrangements are dying. It's time to change course.

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Mount Doom is shaking and the EU is cracking up.
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Charles Crawford
On 24 October 2011 09:28

A few years back I joined a seminar organised in the margins of a FCO Leadership Conference in London. The discussion focused on global trends. A striking observation was made:

“In the past ten years or so we have seen one of the greatest changes in human history–a billion people have joined the global economy".

This, it was argued, changed everything.

Above all, it meant a colossal downward pressure on living standards in Western economies: when so many jobs and functions could now be outsourced to poorer parts of the world, why should wages in the UK and elsewhere in Europe and the USA continue to trend upwards?

This in turn had startling implications for strategic Western pension models, set up on the basis that living standards would improve indefinitely. Likewise for the whole of state funding: taxes would have to rise significantly to pay for state functions.

I butted in to challenge that last proposition. Why was that the only option? Why not start looking at scaling back the role of the state? That question seemed to daze the then New Labour speaker: did it represent a line of thought which had never occurred to him?

The underlying insight nonetheless was correct. Once a billion people in a matter of a few dozen months join the global means of production of ideas, as IT gadgets get cheaper and better (see the swarming cheap telephones videoing the ghastly end of Gaddafi), everything starts to change at an exponential rate.

In particular, the very logic of the existence of institutions and practices set up under completely different conditions can be called abruptly into question, in a way which is for practical purposes unmanageable.

We now see this everywhere, all the time.

What is the role of banks? Why the nation state? What is money, and why should governments have a monopoly on it? Why should Premier League football clubs play only in England? How to run a sensible immigration policy? What sort of tax system makes sense in current circumstances? Why do we vote the way we do? Why not have far greater citizen participation in national-level political decisions? What's the point of schools when any child can download the world's information on to a small gadget? How to balance transparency against privacy? Should we show Gaddafi's end on TV? Why do we have a monarchy? Who is my neighbour in a global village?

Any one of these questions is profoundly difficult to discuss in a measured, organised way: they all take us back to first principles which we have never really felt the need to articulate.

Pile them up one on top of the other and you end up in endemic confusion and uncertainty. As G K Chesterton put it, “When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing–they believe in anything".

The very stupidity and incoherence of the various “occupy" demonstrations and sit-ins in cities across the world represent an almost endearing heartfelt, juvenile squeak for help amidst all this doubt.

All of which takes us to the UK Parliamentary debate on the European Union, and the British government's lugubrious attempts to head off calls for a British referendum on basic EU questions.

There is something to be said for the claim that as the Eurozone burst into flames all this talk of a British referendum is an unwelcome distraction. But that looks like a puny tactical point when far bigger issues are at stake.

There is a lot more to be said for giving intellectual leadership, embracing the proposition that the time has come to look long and hard at the way the European Union is now set up. As I have previously argued, the iron laws of physics show us the fatal weakness of the European Union: it bulks up mass and reduces velocity.

Almost everything about the European Union is now at odds with the scary, dynamic world we face, and reflects ideas which are now unsustainable.

The huge salaries and pensions. The impenetrable procedures and untransparent decisions. The constant overriding or outflanking of voters' opinions. Above all, the truly heroic impertinence of the European elite who, having blundered in creating the Eurozone and its ruinous results, now insist that they and they alone must be given more centralised power over voters and their money.

True, David Cameron and William Hague are in a tight spot. Were they to allow a free vote in parliament on the referendum motion, they would face a furious reception from other European leaders when they next appeared at a summit. Don't underestimate the way these personal relationships affect leaders these days.

On the other hand, the Conservative Party and Labour Party alike could be put at risk if public dissatisfaction with European Union started to run out of control. Hence the current febrile attempts to determine the outcome, which seem to be getting the worst of all possible worlds: the collective determination of the main British political parties to deny the British public a say on these momentous matters looks out of touch, if not oppressive.

The deeper logic of the government's position is simple, if a trifle cynical: since the European Union is doing a good job of deconstructing itself, albeit in an appallingly risky way, there is little to be gained by the UK kicking away its Zimmer frame.

Sooner or later a radical renegotiation of European arrangements will fall into the British lap, with London in a strong negotiating position. Without British taxpayers' money European “solidarity" doesn't go far.

Europe Minister David Lidington has put out a new gloss on the government's position: that a referendum on the UK's attitude to European structures would make sense once new EU Treaty changes have been agreed.

In normal circumstances that might indeed make sense. It risks being overwhelmed by events, although it does have the great advantage of sending a signal to other European capitals that unless any new treaty represents a really important shift of power back to national capitals it has no chance of being accepted by British public opinion.

What's missing is the UK 's brutal insistence on a long list of specific powers which need to be repatriated. But that in a way is a detail.

These parliamentary games do not match the severity of the situation. The time is coming to respond to public opinion and seize the intellectual high ground, by starting a hard debate on the best way to organise Europe in the tumultuous changing circumstances brought about by the IT revolution.

Sooner or later that debate has to happen. Surely it is better to have it in some sort of controlled way with the UK using its detachment from the Eurozone debacle to define and lead the debate, rather than as a result of pell-mell collapse?

Needless to say, as soon as the British Prime Minister makes a public call for profound EU treaty revision, the shriek from Brussels (and Paris ) will replicate the horrible banshee wail of the Nazgul as Mount Doom started to tumble.

So be it. The EU’s current arrangements are dying. Time to change course. 

Charles Crawford was British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw. He is now a private consultant and writer: www.charlescrawford.biz. He tweets at @charlescrawford    

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