I don’t often think about primary school. Well, it would be more accurate to say I can’t. I have scattered memories of those years – a game of tig here, a pair of broken glasses there – but nothing to dwell upon. At that age, the memory is like the broad, clumsy brush-strokes on the Van Gogh pastiches we made when we were seven: bright colours, vague impressions, little coherence.
I do remember one moment quite well. I was perhaps nine, and the school had decided to teach us something practical: in this instance, we were called upon to put together little boats capable of traversing a trough of water, using only balsa wood and elastic bands. My teacher found my response to the creative writing task I’d been working on before that amusing and gave me some extra time to finish it (some arch comedy I had ripped off from a video game). By the time I got my hands on the balsa wood I was well behind everyone else and had to work alone.
I fiddled and worked at it for days, but try as I might, I couldn’t get the propeller working. The fat chunk of wood I had tried to use for the purpose splashed about hopelessly, spraying my little blue polo shirt with ice-cold water. On the upside, it cooled me down a little bit, after the quiet, burning, humiliated tears had receded. So I gave up. On reflection, the boat had been badly designed from the start – too heavy at the front, too prone to weakness at the back. It would never have got to the finish line anyway.
Then I got home and watched Pokémon, I imagine. That was pretty much all I watched at that age. As I recall, Ash usually won against all the odds. It’s funny that the odds were never, never in his favour. Yet he always won. Isn’t that interesting?
Tristram Hunt’s article in the New Statesman on the European referendum, deriding Brexit as a “self-defeating dereliction of duty and history”, is an impressive piece of work. Its rousing defence of the EU as a unifying force for liberal democracy dovetails with his cool dismissal of Michael Gove’s purportedly Whiggish view of British history and Daniel Hannan’s slurping plutophilia. It is almost convincing. Yet an impressive piece of work is still a piece of work, so to speak, and Mr Hunt replaces Rhodesian Anglocentrism with Whiggism of his own.
Mr Hunt’s thesis, in essence, is that the EU is an institution of reform, of blunting the sharp edges of capitalism. He sets out his stall thus:
As a progressive, I want to remain within a supranational institution that has the capacity to help reform capitalism for the digital age. On issues such as tax justice, workers’ rights, climate change, environmental protection, international trade and poverty alleviation the EU plays a positive role.
Anticipating the objections, however, this statement of the obvious is immediately qualified by the following:
Yes, it is difficult for us liberals to defend its recent treatment of Greece, its inertia on the refugee crisis, or its institutional lethargy towards proper democratic accountability. But social justice requires co-operation beyond our borders, and the fact remains that the only sustained period of peace in modern European history directly coincides with the EU’s creation.
This is the case in a nutshell, really. I have bolded the words ‘institutional lethargy’ above, because it is not that institutional lethargy is, as Mr Hunt implies, a bug in the EU’s system, a thorn in its side, a fly in its ointment. Far from being something that prevents the system from solving the refugee crisis or sorting out the vertiginous scale of European debt, institutional lethargy is the EU’s system.
Why? In 1945, Europe lay in ruins, utterly exhausted by the most savage conflict in human history. There was, however briefly, the opportunity for the occupying American forces west of Berlin to impose a new sovereign state on West Germany, France, Italy and the Benelux: the ‘United States of Europe’ coined by Churchill in his Zurich speech in 1946. This would be the state of the future, the one that through gradual, measured expansion could lead the world towards progress, sweeping away the nationalisms of the past as one more ideology that had been utterly defeated along with Nazism and fascism. It would manifest a destiny for humanity itself.
But this was bottled, of course, as these things usually are. Instead we got gradualism: first the Coal and Steel Community, with its noxious air of strapping, 1950s industrialism; second the Economic Community, a gentle, unassumingly technocratic creature in the background of the Cold War; lastly the Union, our Union, Maastricht and Lisbon duetting the harmony that serenaded the end of history and the nuclear peace. With gradualism came intergovernmentalism, and with intergovernmentalism came a big, dripping, juicy platter of pork, farmed through the Common Agricultural Policy. Worse still came a regulatory environment which punished experimentation and stifled the development of economic systems to rival the Union’s unambitious own. All roads led to Rome – and it was those roads or the high road, buster.
Instead of a system which serves the people of Europe, we have a system which serves its governments. Every item of European policy is created through horse-trading between governments, in arduous negotiations that eventually reach a limping settlement for ministers to sell to their parties and their people: look at David Cameron’s pathetic renegotiation for an example of this in progress. Yet if we needed an example, Greece has been the butt of the EU’s institutional incompetence for years – not just in the ongoing failure to resolve its debt crisis, but the abject chaos unfolding on its islands as Europe scrambles to make up for the consequences of Germany’s unilateral (and democratically-endorsed) embrace of open borders. The German drum is the loudest beat on the Continent, but there aren’t many states who can keep up any more.
In a functional system, countries would be able to be flexible, play to their strengths, and operate in an air of competition and open dealing. Instead, far from creating a shining beacon of free trade and democracy, we have generated a system so laden with rules, processes and legal challenges that it replicates the deadlock of another federal government a mere ocean away. And just like that mighty republic, we work with filthy criminals to mitigate the impact of our own overextension. Rather than being the great peacekeeper on the Continent, the last few years have proved how wholly reliant on a NATO-enforced peace the EU is. Take away its air of tranquility – threaten it from the east or the south – and it proves incapable of even adapting its own system, let alone contributing to international stability. There was, of course, a precedent for this, but faced with the havoc erupting in the Mediterranean we have even less excuse.
Mr Hunt continues:
When even the United Kingdom itself faces an uncertain future, I believe we need to stand up and renew the ties that bind. To walk away from Europe in its latest hour of need would be an entirely self-defeating dereliction of duty and history; a betrayal of our traditional role as a force for peace, security and the proper balance of powers. Brexit is the politics of defeat and the philosophy of decline. We must resist those siren voices and lead both ourselves and the Continent towards a more open, liberal, democratic, freer, fairer and stronger future.
It would be nice if the European Union could be led to a more open, liberal, democratic, freer, fairer and stronger future. But it cannot be led at all. It is set up precisely to frustrate being led by anyone, because every state obeys their rational individual incentives to change nothing at all and preserve their own privileges. Like my boat, it’s too big, too heavy, and its propeller judders limply as the vessel floats with all the others, becalmed, somewhere in the Mediterranean.
If Europe became a sovereign state of the core six, then perhaps – perhaps – it could be rejoined. But the EU as it stands is just not good enough, and calls for a stronger European Parliament just delay the issue – and run up against the fact that the Council and Commission have no reason to give up their power. The longer the EU exists, the weaker Europe becomes, more and more vulnerable to Erdoğan’s thumbscrews, the long, dark Russian winter and the sheer entropy of its own economic ennui.
The boats of Europe lie rather low in the water, and time is running out. When confronted with the proof that great projects like the Eurozone (a Franco-German confection) and eastern expansion (Britain’s fault, mostly) are not working, the EU has no way to give up on those projects and try different ones like a nation-state can. Instead, it has to bet all the harder on a change in its fortunes: the gambler who, sure his losing streak will run out soon, divests himself of his wallet, then his car, then his house.
The odds are no longer good enough. Every hand’s a loser. It’s time, after forty years of gambling, to leave the table.
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
-TS Eliot, Little Gidding (from Four Quartets)