'Europe's last chance' – and why we chose wisely

'Europe's last chance' – and why we chose wisely

by William Ross
article from Monday 24, April, 2017

IF YOU FORGIVE the absolutely appalling pun, Guy Verhofstadt, (pictured) former PM of Belgium, head of the Europe-wide Liberal Party (acronym ALDI) and chief Brexit negotiator for the EU Parliament, is quite a guy. Amid the grey faces of Brussels, the passionate, multi-lingual and  flamboyant Verhofstadt, with his drifting hair, cuts quite the figure. Verhofstadt is seen as an ally to Scotland by many in the SNP, with The National calling him "Yesman!"  Strange, given that he has battled Flemish and Walloon separatism all his life. 

As well as being one of the most anti-Brexit politicians in Europe, Verhofstadt writes a lot. For example he wrote a key article in Time last year just after the Brexit referendum. He has followed up with a very interesting book (published late in 2016) called Europe's Last Chance. As a true believer myself (Christian, Yes, Leave) I respect another such even when we disagree so deeply. Surprisingly, Brexiteers will find much of interest in the book and also much to agree with. Yes, I said "much to agree with". This is a book for Leavers rather than Remainers!

Why so? Because the well argued rationale of Verhofstadt relies on one  single underlying linchpin principle that virtually no-one in the UK could agree with. Guy himself summed it up in one devastating tweet of congratulations when  Lib-Dem Sarah Olney won the Richmond by-election  last year; "I am a European". Iain Duncan Smith was upset by the tweet but LibDems were embarrassed. Like an awkward old evangelical country uncle in a family gathering of liberal anglicans, Verhofstadt was articulating the truth about the European "project"; this is about forming a new country. Remember when Andrew Marr interviewed George Osborne after the referendum and asked him why Remain had failed to make the argument for the EU but instead relied on Project Fear? His response, the British people could not be swayed by an argument for the EU!  This is how Remain got 48% on 23 June. 

But contrary to Osborne,  Verhofstadt is all about talking about the EU because he sees that the institution in its present form is a hopeless three-legged dog which either needs to be shot (disintegration) or have a fourth leg (Federalism) attached in painful and complex surgery. Hence the title "Europe's Last Chance". "Don't you get it?", screams Verhofstadt! The EU is in desperate straits! On page 25 of the book, Verhofstadt states in stark terms:

"The only solution for Europe is to reform the EU in the model of the American federal government". 

We Leavers, in the company of most Remainers, will summarily reject the concept of a single federal European state. We are NOT Europeans in that sense. Having done that, we can gain a lot by analysing Guy's very honest examination of the EU as it currently functions and on this the author is an undoubted authority. His serried criticisms of the EU constitute a classic admission against interest. Beyond the federalist debate many of his liberal principles are highly commendable. 

So to the  well-written and fluid book which covers many interesting subjects.  The Introduction ably frames the theme: the current EU is a failure and only the creation of a US style United States of Europe can provide the solution. This is no idle academic debate but a current imperative. Oddly, Verhofstadt seems to address his work to the American people. He appears to have written the UK off. (I wonder why?) He is a good student of the US constitutional experience. Very importantly, he classifies the current EU as a weak confederation. 

One of the most infuriating things about the Brexit debate was the way that Remain supporters refused to focus on what the EU actually is. In heated  pre-referendum exchanges with me in the The National SNP MEP Alyn Smyth would only concede that the EU is a "project". That's tosh. A confederation that is a sovereign entity, grants citizenship, embodies internal free movement, issues passports, passes governing law, enforced by a supreme court, and looks for an army, is a country, albeit a weak, confused chaotic country. 

In terms of EU history, Verhofstadt rebuts the comfortable Remain argument that the "project" represents increasing sweetness and light since 1945. Instead, he claims that the true federalist project of Churchill and Schuman was aborted in 1954 when the French National Assembly voted down the proposed European defense community element of the so-called Brentano Constitution which had been executed by the foreign ministers of the original six (France, West Germany, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy) on 10 September, 1952. Verhofstadt argues that this original constitution, drafted by the the German politician Brentano, provided for a simple elegant federal structure. I must say that I share Guy's admiration for the US experiment, but only the extreme exigencies of recent catastrophe and murderous communist threat could have led to the formation of  a US-style federal state in Western Europe in the 1950's. The UK would never have joined such a state.

What Verhofstadt never addresses is that if Brussels is to be Washington DC then London must be capital of something like a US state (New York?) and Edinburgh (if independent) would be like Baton Rouge (Louisiana has  roughly the same population and area as Scotland). Verhofstadt flatly denies that any such mega-federal EU would be a "super-state" but what does he think that the US is but a super-state? However, the US is a benign and successful superstate because its inhabitants are consciously and happily American. Louisiana, which I know very well,  is a very proud colourful state entity but Louisianians are very proud Americans. Florida and Spain are chalk and cheese. Verhofstadt's federal blindspot highlights a key EU erroneous zone which is often raised by Remainers. Are you trying to argue, they ask, that the Netherlands is not a sovereign state? The answer is that the Netherlands is still a sovereign state in terms of International La  but is simultaneously a member of the EU, which is another sovereign entity. In short, the EU offers a kind of unique dual sovereignty. This is a sui generis  constitutional arrangement, and its true nature is hidden with elite winks, nods and weasel words like "project", "sovereign entity", "High Representative" and others. 

Chapters 4 and 5 of the book highlight the EU's chronic failures in foreign policy and defence. In all fairness, these failures extend beyond the EU itself to European countries. Verhofstadt highlights the tragic case of the former Yugoslavia where the Americans, as usual, had to step in. Further weaknesses are highlighted in Iraq, Syria and Africa. I have a lot of sympathy for Verhofstadt when he  attacks  the sinister President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. On page 72, Verhofstadt says "Putin is a master manipulator; compared to him, the leaders of the twenty-eight member states are dwarves". I could not agree more. But Verhofstadt merely confirms that it was not the EU which has kept the peace in Europe since 1945 but the only entity which Putin respects: NATO.

Chapter 9 on migration is less convincing. The EU and its members are "...really to blame for the tragedy we are witnessing on a daily basis at the southern fringes of our continent" (page 122). This is putting it too strongly. Much migration is purely economic and we are not responsible for all of the area's poverty and war. We are apparently, "perfectly aware of the causes of this unbridled migration and how we should tackle them" (page 126) Really? How should we tackle them? Adopt a single EU  green card/points system like the US, suggests Guy. Politically impossible, this will not control African migration.  

Verhofstadt's critique of EU institutions is perhaps most interesting of all. In Chapter 15 ,he makes the point that the EU is actually a dog's breakfast  of various unions such as Single Market, Eurozone, Schengen, Customs Union and so on. This dog's breakfast is in turn led by the Council of Ministers,  EU Commission, European Council, member states and so on. Who do the Americans call in a crisis? "Why are we unable to create  transparent European institutions?" laments Verhofstadt. Could the answer be that there is no European demos? We Leavers too often attack the EU's failing and undemocratic institutions but we neglect the deeper insoluble problem: the existing EU institutions are those of a weak confederation and no true European nationality exists.

It would have been nice for Remainers to own up to the EU's shambolic structures during the referendum campaign. And they call Brexit a "boorach"!

Verhofstadt is just as scathing about the unsustainable euro:" a monetary union cannot endure without a full-fledged economic and political union" (page 99). Some countries have no currency of their own, but no currency except the euro has no country. Off course, I could argue that the weak confederation is a country. 

Verhofstadt dismisses Brexit as Little Englander stupidity and argues that the Project Fear warnings of the Remain camp are being borne out (???). Brexit was only wanted by a minority (?) and it was not about the EU in any event but only a catfight in the Tory party! We can smile and be forgiving about this nonsense.

Overall, Verhofstadt's book is a devastating critique of the the way the EU now operates. Only two solutions exist: Verhofstadt's pie-in-the-sky federalism or a transition to European Free Trade with a strengthened NATO alliance embodying the West's universal liberal values. The UK has chosen wisely. 

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