Too embarrassing to talk about

In: Uncategorized

10 Feb 2012

Not all anniversaries are equal it seems. Some raise so many awkward questions the authorities would rather they are not discussed.

Take the contrast between two anniversaries this week. The 60th anniversary of the queen’s accession to the throne received widespread media coverage that is likely to go on for months. Compare it with the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht treaty, which created the EU and ultimately the eurozone, which was hardly mentioned.

Admittedly few people under the age of 40 have probably even heard of the treaty and many of those over that age have forgotten it. But that is because the last thing the authorities want to do is to encourage a broad public discussion about the nature of the EU.

The 1992 Maastricht treaty created pan-European institutions as they exist today. Although it was preceded by the European Economic Community, founded in 1957, the earlier institution was much narrower in scope. The EU embodied the process of economic and monetary union as well as greatly expanding pan-European involvement in social and political affairs.

As an aid to readers here is a reminder of some of the key features of the Maastricht treaty:

* It was an elite initiative largely motivated by fears of the impact of German reunification with the end of the Cold War. British and French leaders in particular wanted to lock Germany into an integrated Europe rather than emerge as an independent power.

* When the EU has been put to a public vote it has often proved unpopular. Danes rejected the Maastricht treaty in a referendum while a tiny majority in France accepted it. Subsequent referendums have often voted against EU treaties but political leaders have generally circumvented the popular will.

* The Maastricht treaty mentioned the need for “sound public finances” three times as well as “sound financial management”. An annex to the treaty specified that the government deficit should not exceed 3% of GDP and public debt should not exceed 60% of GDP. In practice both France and Germany broke these rules as far back as 2002 [Note: original text stated 2003].

* Britain, under a Conservative government, was a prime mover in the move towards a more united European and the creation of the euro. Only later did it decide to opt out of the single currency. More recently David Cameron circumvented his “cast-iron guarantee to hold a referendum on the EU’s 2007 Lisbon treaty.

All of these features of the EU call into question the way the institution is generally discussed. For a start it was a response to a top-down initiative rather than popular pressure. When Europeans have been given the chance to vote on EU initiatives they have often rejected them.

It also shows that the rules-based system of economic management does not work. Technocrats can specify as many targets as they like but they do not guarantee economies will run smoothly.

Finally, the Conservatives have in practice played as much of a role promoting European integration as Labour governments. British people have had as little say in the matter as their fellow Europeans on the continent.

A united Europe would be welcome if it were the result of a genuinely popular initiative. The EU, in contrast, is inherently bureaucratic and undemocratic.

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