‘Suddenly, the air was thick with the sound of chickens coming home to roost!’ Not my line, I’m afraid, it’s Alan Bennett’s. It comes from his clever if slightly disjointed play ‘Habeas Corpus’. It’s one I’ve quoted a lot over the years, and I’ve been aware of it this past week.
There is a smile on the faces of the Eurosceptics. They believe the chickens are coming home to roost on all things European. The woes of the eurozone have accompanied news that one of the most popular e-petitions on the Downing Street website was one calling for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. And we now even have one of Labour’s most pro-European MPs saying the EU’s institutions are losing credibility.
I wish to issue a very loud call for caution. There are lots of shades of opinion on the myriad issues that carry the ‘euro-’ prefix, including many within the Liberal Democrats. But anyone who wishes the demise of all things European either hasn’t thought things through or is living in cloud cuckoo land.
For a start, there are several euro-issues. There’s the EU, the Council of Europe, the continent of Europe, and the euro currency. All these get treated with the same ‘euro-’ prefix but they are often totally different beasts. Even knowledgeable journalists frequently get the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights mixed up. (One is the EU’s court, the other is the Council of Europe’s – but how many know which is which?)
I have always seen myself on the Eurosceptic wing of the Lib Dems, but even that needs some qualification. As someone who has lived in Germany and Switzerland and thus speaks fluent German and nearly fluent French (and these days a smattering of Spanish), I am totally transnational in my outlook.
But I have for many years been reluctant to concede more powers to the EU, because I feel its institutions are too weak to withstand the periodic pounding they’re subjected to from lobbying by whichever industry is flavour of the month. I also believe in decentralisation, so no more decisions should be taken at transnational level than absolutely necessary.
I have also been uncomfortable with the idea of Britain joining the euro, even when the economics made the case plausible (about 10 years ago – it’s hard to imagine now, I know). I was never comfortable with the idea that one currency can fit both the affluence of Germany and the relative poverty of Greece, to say nothing of the different work ethics in those two countries. Britain being outside the euro has allowed the Bank of England more freedom in setting interest rates.
But does this make me an EU-sceptic? Heavens no! And am I rejoicing at the euro’s turmoil? Of course not. Britain may be outside the euro, but our economy is heavily dependent on trade with mainland Europe, so if the euro suffers, so do we. That’s why the Schadenfreude at the euro’s woes is totally misplaced.
And at one level the EU has been a phenomenal success, so successful that we have even forgotten – or are too young to have known – the problem it solved. The current EU was conceived in the 1950s to ensure that powerhouse economies like France and Germany never had the incentive to go to war again. War in western Europe is now inconceivable. We all got a bit of a shock in the 1990s when Yugoslavia descended into bloody civil war, but one ex-Yugoslav state, Slovenia, is now an EU member, and the other five are queuing up to join.
We see enough television programmes and films, and read enough Sebastian Faulks and Andrea Levy novels, to understand what trauma war can bring. The EU has effectively eradicated the likelihood of war in Europe. For that we should be truly grateful – and utterly contemptuous about the argument that Britain should withdraw from the EU.