Mr Spock, the USS Enterprise’s science officer in “Star Trek”, used to play 3D chess, a game which always looked challenging because a move on one board could have unforeseen effects on another board. This popped into my head in recent days as I was taking in the general air of complaint and grievance about the European Union that seems to permeate the member states of late. In short, everybody seems to be bitching about something, and it’s all them fellas in Brussels fault.
Take the Swiss vote on restricting EU immigration into Switzerland. The Swiss people have every right to say, for example, that only 20,000 new EU citizens can live in their country every year. Fine. It’s their country. But what happens when the EU, which has to stand up for its citizens, says “OK. Well, we’ll apply the same rule too. Only 20,000 Swiss can move to the EU every year.”
Suddenly, the Swiss are outraged, complaining that the EU can easily take more than 20,000 Swiss students and businesspeople and retired people every year, but that’s not the point. The Swiss moved their piece on the board. They can’t be shocked that it effects other pieces, and whilst they can decide what to do in Switzerland, they can ignore the EU moving its (much bigger) pieces at their peril. Remember: you can only move your own pieces.
But let’s go further: Eurosceptics like Nigel Farage and Geert Wilders have welcomed the Swiss decision, perhaps believing that their own respective countries should attempt the same move. But again, there’s the issue. The British and the Dutch have a sovereign right to move their pieces, but so do the Poles and the Germans and the French. Supposing a future British government does present a watering down of free movement at a future summit. And supposing, say, the French grudgingly agree. Delight in the British camp. Then the French president clears his throat: “As we are looking at core competences here, France would like to discuss the possibility of tariffs to protect key strategic industries…” Cue shock in the British and Dutch delegations. “Absolutely not. Free movement is one thing, but free trade is sacrosanct…” The French president shrugs. “Perhaps to you, but as we are now discussing one core principle we can discuss another…” he says, as he moves his queen across the board.
This is the most curious aspect of modern European integration, the belief that the benefits of the European Union are now some sort of natural phenomenon which will remain and flower without the EU. But they are not. Marine Le Pen agrees with many in Britain on the need for immigration controls. But not on free trade. The Poles agree with Britain on free trade, but not on immigration.
What happens, then, if you remove the EU framework. What if the Berlaymont stands empty, the blue flags long gone?
It’s not the end of the world, as some of the more hysterical federalists will tell you. European countries will learn to get on. But the temptation of national governments in a post-EU Europe to give into the short-term orgasmic pleasure of populism and ignore the long-term costs will be almost unavoidable. With the euro gone, the temptation of Italy, Greece and Spain to devalue would be almost irresistible. Spain devaluing beside France would force France to either devalue itself, which would cause Germany problems, or introduce tariffs on Spanish and Italian goods to protect home producers, causing retaliation from Madrid and Rome. I’m old enough to remember French farmers attacking trucks carrying British and Irish lamb to the French market, so this isn’t fantasy stuff.
How would Britain or Spain or Poland be better off kicking each others citizens out in populist retaliation? How is that a better Europe than what we have now, where the single market would once again become a hotch-potch of currencies and vested interests demanding import levies on X or Y. Does anyone imagine that Irish consumers would be better served if ALDI or LIDL were sent packing, so we can “look after our own” or protect them from “unfair competition”, the argument that was used for decades to keep RTE, Eircom and Aer Lingus monopolies? Would Irish passengers be better off if only Aer Lingus could operate in Ireland, or not be legally undercut? What about roaming charges? Could the Portuguese government force Vodafone to give its citizens cheaper calls when they’re in Poland? This isn’t fantasy. We have been here before.
And let’s not forget the giant big unspoken German elephant in the room. Should we fear Germany? Of course not. Germany is a democracy, solid as any. But for all those people who shriek about German domination of the EU, ask them what Germany does in an EU free Europe? The answer is, quite simply, nothing. It just sits there, and its sheer economic heft becomes the gravitational centre of Europe. Standards don’t get set in Brussels by Finns and Czechs and Croats and yes, Germans, in respectful committees. They get set in Berlin by Germans for 82 million Germans, and the rest of us just sign up if we want to sell them stuff. Eurosceptics think this is progress?
And don’t think Google or Microsoft or Facebook will want to set up in a country of 4.5 million people which is outside the tariff barriers of the larger countries. Ireland won’t have to worry about the morality of levying low taxes on companies that won’t be there.
Europe is a free continent, and European countries can move their pieces whatever way their people demand. But don’t think that other people can’t, or won’t move their pieces too. Europe only works if everybody pretty much has a say over how every piece moves.