Friday, 11 March 2016

Is the EU archaic, or dynamic?

Boris Johnson's description of the EU as an "anachronism" is rich coming from a monarchy with no written constitution.

Wild-maned London mayor Boris Johnson delivered a much-anticipated speech today explaining why he has become the most prominent proponent of the UK leaving the European Union. I suffered through it so you don't have to.

It is striking how similar BoJo's speeches sound to those delivered by Donald Trump across the pond. Demonstrating a willful disregard for the facts (more on that later), BoJo paints a picture of a glorious future - making Britain great again. Things are terrible now because the UK is in the EU, and as soon as it leaves things will be great again. But his explanations as to why they will be better are at best vague, at worst fanciful. When asked today what the risks were of a brexit, BoJo claimed he "honestly can't think of any".

The overall message is that the UK needs to "burst out of the shackles of Brussels" because the EU is "an anachronism", and the UK on its own would by much more dynamic and modern. "This thing's 50 years old," he scoffed, as if that harkened back to the Middle Ages.

It's not the first time I've heard this characterisation in the Brexit debate. UK Education Secretary Michael Gove, another prominent Brexit proponent, said the same in in his statement backing Brexit. "The EU is an institution rooted in the past and is proving incapable of reforming to meet the big technological, demographic and economic challenges of our time," he wrote. "It was developed in the 1950s and 1960s and like other institutions which seemed modern then, from tower blocks to telexes, it is now hopelessly out of date...it is an analogue union in a digital age."


From an outsider's perspective, this characterisation seems absurd. The UK has one of the most archaic governing structures in the world. It is one of the only countries without a written constitution. It still has an unelected upper chamber of parliament. The government's convoluted relationship with its monarchy relies on a system of winks and nods rather than a spelled-out balance of powers, as exists in monarchies such as that of the Netherlands or Belgium (which were both invented in the 19th century). Perhaps most ludicrously, it has neither a centralised nor federal structure, relying on a peculiar balance created by devolution in which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have regional governments while England does not. If anything looks like an anachronism, it's Westminster.

The EU, on the other hand, has developed slowly over the past fifty years, during the modern age. It is still evolving, and that's what I love about it. That's why we keep revising the treaties - when something isn't working the EU changes how it works. It's not always perfect, but at least it's making the effort, which is more than I can say about the UK or the United States.

I've written before about what motivated me to move to Europe to cover the EU in 2006 - I felt that US governance was archaic and incapable of reform. By contrast, the European Union and the comparatively younger nation-states of Europe were dynamic and consistently making adjustments to adapt to modern realities. But if I had to put any caveat on that characterisation, I would have said 'with the exception of the UK'.


BoJo himself made an apt comparison in his piece coming out as a Brexit supporter for The Telegraph, as he was waxing nostalgic for his time in Brussels as an EU correspondent. "In the 28 years since I first started writing for this paper about the Common Market – as it was then still known – the project has morphed and grown in such a way as to be unrecognisable, rather as the vast new Euro palaces of glass and steel now lour over the little cobbled streets in the heart of the Belgian capital."

This is what the argument for Brexit is really about - wistful nostalgia, not modern dynamism. Damn those modern glass and steel buildings! Let's go back to lovely little cobbled streets! This is what the Brexiters are calling for. It's a backward-facing idealisation of the past. I could make further comparisons to Trump, but I think you get the idea.

In the same breath as he paints the European project as an anachronism, BoJo notes that "trying to create a single country out of many is something being imitated nowhere else around the world." So, it's a bold new idea? In an era of globalisation, it is trying to find solutions that work better than the traditional 19th century nation-state? How exactly is this consistent with the idea of the EU being an anachronism? Is it not the nation-state that is the anachronism?

In any event, BoJo's characterisation is, while correct, also disingenuous. Because in truth what sets it apart from earlier unifications (of which there have been many) is that it hasn't been forced by nationalist movements or Colonial legacies. Perhaps he forget the great German and Italian unification projects of the 19th century, which bound together centuries-old states based on common language. Or perhaps he forgets the creation of post-colonial states in the 20th century, such as India or Indonesia. These unifications were the opposite phenomenon, uniting centuries-old linguistically and religiously divergent states based on the convenience of continuing inherited colonial realms. The EU is not the first project uniting various states, but it is the first to do so not by military force, not as a result of colonial legacies,and not as a result of 19th-century language-based nationalism.


Let's be clear, the European project is a voluntary and democratic one. The truth, which BoJo knows but studiously leaves out of his speeches, is that the EU is not made up of "unelected bureaucrats" dictating laws from Brussels. EU laws are voted on by elected British members of the European Parliament and elected ministers in the UK cabinet. When BoJo laments that the Commission is negotiating free trade deals on behalf of the UK, he neglects to mention that they are doing so based on a mandate approved by the elected British government. When he says that the growth of the tech sector in London "has absolutely nothing to do with the EU", he neglects to mention that those companies have specifically stated they choose London as a European hub, with access to the common market.

I'll leave it to InFacts to rebut the rest of BoJo's claims. But what's clear to me is there is certainly one side of this debate that is stuck in the past, and it's not the In campaign.

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