Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Bring on the rain

This is the text of my address given last night to the Kings College European Week. Delivered to a largely Europhile audience, the words "pork chop", "Jewish wedding" and "as welcome as" came to mind.

Humour can be found in unexpected places. I expected to find it least in the European Parliament where, in 1999 I joined the political group led by the Danish MEP Jens-Peter Bonde. That's Bonde.. Jens Bonde.

It cannot have been a coincidence that in the parliament in Strasbourg, on the 7th floor, the functionnaires allocated him room 007.

I presume the same sense of humour pervades the recent appointment of the fisheries commissioner to Barroso's commission. But, to understand the joke, you really have to be a fan of Star Trek – which some people still think is fictional.

Regular viewers of "Next Generation" or "Voyager" will know of the deadly foe that infests the galaxy – half organic, half machine – which takes over the bodies of its victims, turning them into clones of themselves, wiping out whole planets and species.

Their famous catch-phrase, on confronting their prey, is "Resistance is futile… you will be assimilated". And the name of this deadly foe is the Borg.

It was with some delight therefore that we noted that the new fisheries commissioner goes by the name of Joe Borg, which rather confirmed our suspicions as to the eventual destination of "the project", otherwise known as the European Union.

We are wondering whether the Union will even stop when it reaches South Africa. Perhaps that explains why the EU is so keen on its space policy. Is it going to change it motto from "Unity in diversity" to: "to boldly go…"?

Joking aside – for those of you who think I was joking – this does seem to characterise the EU's policy towards it neighbours. Its much-vaunted foreign policy seems not so much to relate with them as to absorb them… to assimilate them. Perhaps it should change its motto to: "Resistance is futile".

My task today, though, is not to look back but to look forward, to speculate on the effects of enlargement on the body corporate of the European Union and on the assimilees themselves.

In this I want to advance a thesis – initially from the perspective of the United Kingdom, asking you to remember that we too were assimilated, albeit some 30 years ago. Where the current enlargement countries go, we went before.

But, with my thesis – yet to be introduced – goes a theme: that theme is "ignorance". No one but a diehard would argue with the assertion that, when the UK joined the then EEC, it was on the basis of ignorance.

We thought we were joining a trading association when we were actually joining a political union. Yes, there were warning voices in the 1960s and 70s but not enough believed them.

Thirty years later, much of that ignorance prevails throughout British society. Very few people, for instance, could define accurately the role of the commission, how its power rests on its monopoly of proposal and how it exploits that power through the process of conditional agenda setting.

Few people understand the role of the council of ministers, still less the European Council and how many confuse it with the Council of Ministers?

But the most ignorance is displayed in relation to that most visible of institutions – the so-called European Parliament. Having worked in that institution, having studied it close-up, dissected its workings, I am constantly surprised by the number of people, including many MEPs, who actually believe it is a democratic institution.

For sure, it is a common mistake, where people confuse form – elections, voting procedures, etc., - with substance, the actual fabric and meaning of democracy. But you just have to recall that Saddam Hussein was "elected" with a 99 percent majority and no one would have called pre-liberation Iraq an democracy.

I am reminded of the cynical Irish politician who told me, after a lengthy explanation of the political situation in Northern Ireland, "If you think you understand it, you haven't been listening". If you think the European Parliament is democratic, you know little about the parliament, and even less about democracy.

Now for the thesis. This is that all us enlargees – assimilees – joined the Union on a false bill of goods, failing to understand the true nature of the beast. The majorities of all these countries, 19 in all since the establishment of the original six, did not know what they were joining and, in the main, still do not know.

This is borne out by the recent Eurobarometer survey, and others, which have demonstrated levels of ignorance of the constitution approaching 80 percent. And since perhaps 80 percent of the constitution comprises the original treaties, it is not unreasonable to assert that the ignorance spreads to general knowledge of the EU itself.

For the recent enlargees, this is not surprising. Those in the former Soviet bloc, we are told, joined for security. Squeezed between the Bear and the Borg, they had to make a choice and the Borg looked a better bet. They didn't need to know the details – and still don't.

But things are changing. In the UK, initially, few took any notice of the EEC once we had joined. It dealt with the dry, technical details of economic integration, which directly affected very few people.

But, since the Maastricht treaty, with the EU entering the end game and acquiring a greater political dimension, people are beginning to wake up. They are noticing the elephant in the room.

Here, I can call in aid another survey, one recently conducted by Mori for the BBC which, contrary to perceived wisdom, demonstrated that the more people knew about the EU, the less they liked it.

True, the level of knowledge is far from perfect but a growing constituency has grasped enough of the basics to realise that the European Union is something they do not want. All the evidence in the UK shows that the disaffected constituency is growing and that, once converted, it holds fast to its views.

But there are no constituencies of a similar scale in the rest of the EU, except perhaps in that other mature democracy. Nevertheless, the evidence is that, from a low base, it will grow and grow.

Further, it is my belief that political activism, political dynamism is more aggressive in the former Soviet bloc countries than it is in the UK. Their peoples take their politics more seriously.

It is thus my belief that it will not take the recent enlargees 30 years to wake up to the idea that they have been "had", that they have been sold a false bill of goods.

My colleague put a time on this – five years. The CIA gave it 15 years before the EU collapses. I cannot put a time on it but I am certain that it will the recent enlargement countries who will wake up first and, together with an aroused United Kingdom, will call a halt to the project.

As an aside, if it takes 15-20 years to negotiate Turkish entry, it will never happen. There will no longer be an EU left to join.

So, my prognosis for enlargement is straightforward. The seeds of destruction have always been in the soil of the "project", with its inherent lack of democracy. Enlargement is the fertiliser. All I can say is: "bring on the rain."

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