Can The Brits Ever Be Rational About Europe?

Has Cameron won an historical political victory by vetoing the proposed regulations in Europe? Or has he just completely and utterly screwed most of us over?
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Has Cameron won an historical political victory by vetoing the proposed regulations in Europe? Or has he just completely and utterly screwed most of us over?

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David Cameron going down a storm with the majority of the population, as usual.

Let me see if I’ve got this right. David Cameron exercised his veto in Europe in order to allow The City of London to escape the same tax regime as the rest of Europe...

That would presumably be the same poorly regulated UK financial sector that, along with Wall Street, is largely responsible for the first Great Depression of the 21st century.

This, my friends is the reason why David Cameron gambled with Britain’s international reputation: for the sake of bankers whose venal conduct and naked greed has wiped out the wealth and security of ordinary working people from Jarrow to Jakarta.

OK, apart from freedom of movement for people, goods and services, an improved Europe-wide infrastructure, a predictable and dependable market for food and several generations of continent-wide stability and socio-economic development. Apart from that, what has the EU ever done for us?

The Eurosceptic right would have you believe that Cameron is an English hero of Churchillian stature. His was apparently a principled stand against the ever-encroaching hegemony of Brussels with its straight bananas and infernal kilograms.

Yes indeed, if that Europe had its way we’d have no pounds at all; sterling or imperial, miles would be swapped for kilometres and our very sausages could lose the name just because of some of EU rubbish about meat content  (‘seasoned sawdust was good enough for my old granddad and he fought the Germans...twice...died of woodworm...’).

Eight out of the UK’s top ten trading partners are in the EU and if it all goes really cunty-booby in the Eurozone, then the contagion won’t be long jumping the Channel.

But in all the Little England bleating, something is being lost in the British approach to Europe. Sure, the UK is one of the net contributors to the EU budget but what seems rarely to be taken into account is the actual benefit in terms of trade that comes from being a member of the EU. The ‘Nation of Shopkeepers’ does very well out of its European neighbours.

Let’s put it this way, eight out of the UK’s top ten trading partners are in the EU and if it all goes really cunty-booby in the Eurozone, then the contagion won’t be long jumping the Channel. And the way things are shaping up that could still turn out to be sooner rather than later.

Let’s be honest, Europe really is in a right old two and eight. In Ireland there has been some debate about ditching Nama (the Irish National Asset Management Agency) in a fast sell-off; it’s that old scabby-plaster philosophy innit?

This however is more akin to lancing a big boil full of pus and bankers. Nama, to those beyond  the Hibernian Heimat (better start getting used to the German names...), seemed like a good idea at the time; put all the toxic stuff  in one place till we figure out wtf to do with all €75bn of it.

(It was therefore with bemused, exasperated resignation that I read recently in the Irish Times that Nama, de facto owner of Irish ghost estates from Bruff to Muff, was buying into London’s premier White Elephant, Battersea Power Station...)

But while the UK tries to sit pretty and the Eurosceptics get to crow ‘I told you so’, it’s pretty clear that there are quite a few problems under the hood of the Great British Economy.

Recent unemployment figures from the Office for National Statistics show youth unemployment still over a million and there was a rise in the total number of unemployed to 2.64m in the three months to October.

When the European Banking Authority pronounced that, as a result of findings from their most recent stress tests, banks in the Eurozone would need to raise a further €114.7bn in capitalisation; there was little surprise that UK banks successfully passed the 9% capitalisation threshold. What did surprise people was that big hitters from Germany like Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank were among those singled out by the EBA as needing to raise more capital.

What was hidden in the detail however were a several sobering truths for UK plc as another festive season begins. According to The Telegraph, itself sourcing a Deloitte report commissioned by Nama: “British banks, despite beginning their disposal programmes much earlier than their Continental European peers, still have by far the biggest pool of toxic assets. Deloitte estimates the size of the non-core and non-performing assets held on the balance sheets of UK banks at £460bn, more than the combined total for Ireland, Spain and Italy.”

So if the Euro crashes, those UK banks (which have proved such a boon to the economy over the past three years) could face overwhelming defaults and drag us all even further into this toxic mire of spiralling debt.

Vital signs from the wider economy don’t offer much hope either.  Recent unemployment figures from the Office for National Statistics show youth unemployment still over a million and there was a rise in the total number of unemployed to 2.64m in the three months to October.

The British Prime Minister might be lionised by a press that still longs to sneer and snigger at Johnnie Foreigner and his funny foreign ways but the press in the rest of Europe has merely dismissed the British and moved on.

“Bye Bye Britain – Europe moves forward without you!” warned Germany’s Das Bild (in German of course...).  Der Spiegel was less philosophical: “Cameron is a coward”. Elsewhere, “Birth of a Europe without London” proclaimed Spain’s El Pais.  Beyond the parochial and six-fingered confines of the Euro-sceptical Conservative rump, David Cameron is being vilified whichever way he turns.

What we got instead was Ed Miliband. And he made Chris Huhne look good...

Parliament? Well, he must have known he’d face some tough opposition there when he tried to explain why he’d played so fast and loose with Britain’s future. But then, at the cabinet table he had to sit and listen to Energy Secretary Chris Huhne telling him had no authority from the coalition to veto a revision of the Lisbon treaty.

Chris Huhne? Really?

It has come to a pretty pass indeed when a paragon of probity and rectitude of such a low order as Huhne can sit in judgement of the Prime Minister. One might have thought that – what with his alleged traffic woes (and their attendant and putative judicial perversions) – the Energy Secretary might be apt to less outspoken critique of the PM.

The Lib Dem front-bencher’s credentials were most recently called into question following allegations made by his ex-wife Vicky Pryce. Huhne has denied claims he asked his then wife to take responsibility for a driving offence in 2003.

As a consequence, the Energy Secretary has been under police investigation for more than five months now.  The case is still being considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). At the end of November, the CPS however suggested they were “very close”   to arriving at a decision on whether to prosecute Huhne, at least according to DPP Keir Starmer QC.

The Energy Secretary has all the recklessness of a condemned man offered the reprieve of a suicide mission.  What has he got to lose? Hell, he may as well go down fighting.

Then there was Prime Ministers Question time on Wednesday. What was required was an oratorical tour de force to rally the left against this snide Tory popinjay of a Prime Minister. What we got instead was Ed Miliband. And he made Chris Huhne look good...

If the Tories really wanted to pick a fight over Europe, they could almost certainly have picked a better one than defending the rights of bankers to keep screwing the rest of us working stiffs.

He barely landed a blow. Cameron parried Miliband’s anodyne inquiries about the nature of relations with coalition partner Clegg with questions of his own about the Labour leader’s fraternal relations.  It was a poor performance and mischief-makers like blogger Guido Fawkes were tweeting that Labour insiders were already numbering Ed’s days after his bad showing at PMQs.

The European Commission also weighed in against Cameron on Wednesday. Michel Barnier, European Commissioner for the internal market, criticised Cameron's decision last week to veto the EU treaty change aimed at solving the euro zone's sovereign-debt crisis.

"It sounds as though the government is arguing for two single markets: one for financial services from which it can opt out, and one for the rest of the economy," Barnier said. "That is simply not possible." French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy reportedly accused David Cameron of behaving like "an obstinate kid" when he wielded the British veto at the European summit last week.

What the hell is it about Europe that gets some British people so wound up? For starters, it’s not some place ‘over there’...Britain can’t just sail off across the Atlantic to rock up on the US east coast as the 51st state; much as that might be attractive in a neo-con, sci-fi kinda way.

The reality is that, whether you like it or not my British chums, you belong to a European nation, you are surrounded by lots of other European nations: some big, some small; some even had big empires just like Britain used to have, but all that is in the past (at least for most Europeans).

We’ve all spent centuries going to war with each other and that’s kind of the whole point of this European Union project:  to make sure that all our common interests are so closely connected that we’d never want or need to go to war with each other ever again.

If the Tories really wanted to pick a fight over Europe, they could almost certainly have picked a better one than defending the rights of bankers to keep screwing the rest of us working stiffs out of our savings, our livelihoods and our children’s futures.

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