Saturday, 23 July 2011

As usual in Europe, ideas prevail over reality

Angela Merkel: Europe's pragmatist, Britain's ideologue
Europe's problem, from a liberal point of view, has historically been a weakness for the abstract over the pragmatic. Romantic ideals have often taken priority over everyday realities; utopian futures over the here and now and 'the people's will' over the rights of the individual.

Despite the best intentions of eighteenth/nineteenth century thinkers and their 'enlightened despots', the longed-for Rechtsstaat ('legal state') never really materialised across the channel; its core principle - the rule of law over arbitrary power - so often pushed aside by sexier, more colourful and heroic ideas.

Indeed, not all that long since two of those grand ideas tore the continent apart, we are seeing very similar ideological fervour, wearing slightly different clothes, in the EU. Ever closer union between member states has taken priority over all other concerns; the most absurd expression of this being the euro.

While Europe's weaker economies slide ever further into destruction, threatening to take the rest of the continent with them, and the writing on the wall - to those rooted enough in reality to read it - is that the single currency ought to be abandoned and the bail-outs cease, Angela Merkel emerges from crisis talks to speak in abstractions and plain falsehoods.

Overriding the more rational regions of her mind, the German chancellor spoke not in terms of hard fiscal realities but with statements like 'It is our historic task to protect the euro' and 'Europe without the euro is unthinkable.'

All nonsense, of course, but the worrying thing is that this woman is supposed to be Europe's pragmatist. That even she, at a time of grave financial crisis, invokes lofty ideas of manifest destiny and a romantic attachment to what most people see as little more than bits of metal and paper shows how little continental politics has changed.

Its historic inability to fully understand the concept of the rule of law, too, has been on full display. Whenever you hear term from Brussels apparats and continental leaders, it's almost uniformly used to express the enforcement of the law. The Anglo-Saxon concept that lawmakers - even when making laws - are bound by a higher law than themselves has never really sunk in.

Hence you have Daniel Hannan's oft-made (and oft-ignored) point that the Greek and Portuguese bail-outs, apart from being ruinously expensive and making the inevitable default even worse, are illegal under none other than European law itself.

Yet, as usual, laws are bent and selectively ignored to fit the circumstances instead of the other way around with legislators assuming that, because they make the law, they are not bound by it. It's the same sorry story over and over again.

In The Road to Serfdom Friedrich von Hayek wrote that 'The possession of even the most perfectly drawn-up legal code does not [...] provide a substitute for a deeply rooted tradition' and, true enough, these constant repetitions demonstrate quite clearly that Europe - a continent which saw off its last dictators just 35 years ago in the west (Caetano and Franco) and 22 in the east (if you don't count Alexander Lukashenko) - is never too far from discarding democracy and the rule of law in favour of 'higher' ideals. Like, say, ever closer union perhaps.

Britain would do well to take this crisis at the heart of the European project as an opportunity to follow the example of our friends in Switzerland - that ancient haven of continental law and democracy - and negotiate a free trade settlement outside of the European Union.

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