Category Archives: Europe
There have been world wars, genocides, whole cities obliterated and great economic depressions. There has even been the Black Death. But we can never identify a period when the whole human race has been shut down in the face of an invisible foe with the potential to kill untold millions and perhaps wipe out half of our elderly mothers and fathers.
Had we not become a scientific species which had acquired a keen understanding of how viruses transmit, this may very well have happened. But today, in my country after three months of hiatus, the shops are permitted – under strict conditions – to resume business. This in itself is a first. There are so many of them. Never before have traders countrywide been prevented from plying their wares. But equally, never before had all human activity which involved close contact been forbidden and the entire population placed under what amounts to house arrest.
Because these constraints so obviously impinge on the ability to do business, economic activity has taken a hit greater than any since the arrival of the Black Death seven centuries ago. Billions of humans have been sent on enforced sabbaticals, and in many cases have lost the will to work. In this glorious spring and summer weather, they have actually enjoyed not having to report for work in the early morning and suffer the burden of having to constantly maintain output, work schedules and the annoyance of being bossed around by their superiors.
Society now faces the herculean task of firing up again all these beach-comers and new enjoyers of public spaces ever since they were permitted to exercise and take the air to maintain health and sanity. But just as daunting are the hitherto unheard levels of public debt incurred to keep as many businesses as possible on life support. Governments around the world knew that, despite breaking every record in the economic rulebook, millions of enterprises will never recover and untold millions will find themselves relying on the public purse to survive. This is particularly galling to those governments – including our own – which managed their affairs well and were looking to a golden future. No one knows what the consequences of so much public debt will be, but consequences there surely will be.
In handling this crisis, my own country has been found seriously wanting. While our freshly minted prime minister has won the first big test of his premiership – exiting the European Union – he has failed abysmally on the second, COVID-19. Failing to put the country in lockdown sooner cost tens of thousands of lives. Failure to test, track and trace added to the litany of woes, as did failure to provide personal protective equipment. But perhaps the most scandalous failure was that of not throwing a cordon sanitaire around the people most likely to die: those in care homes. Hospitals sending infected patients into care homes may be said to have reached the bar of criminal negligence, as was the failure to provide protection for those who look after them. But as if these failings were not enough, we must add four more: an insistence that two-metre social distancing be maintained; a mule-like refusal to accept that face masks can make it harder for the virus to jump from person to person; a tardiness in getting the least at risk back to school; and the lunacy of introducing travel quarantining after the horse has bolted.
But beyond these events, there is an important geo-political dimension. Where has the European Union been in all this? Nowhere, so far as anyone can see. Brussels has been criticised by virtually every member state for interfering in matters they say don’t concern it. But here was a life and death issue which affected all of them equally. Would any have complained were the Union to have taken the lead in protecting them? After all, health issues have always been a major concern of Brussels. It extends even to the much maligned bent or undersized banana.
It has been truly absurd that 27 member states ended up doing their own thing. This was never better illustrated than in our own small island, where devolution allowed for four different solutions to the same problem. We ended up in a Kafkaesque world where an Englishman for the first time in eight hundred years could be stopped from entering Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Various national leaders – and none more so than our own – will face a harsh reckoning when the story of this crisis is finally written up. Had the European Union taken responsibility for managing the crisis, those leaders would have avoided all the brickbats that will now come raining down on them in what many consider the great project of our time, the European Union. And had the EU, for its part, acquitted itself well, it would have provided a mighty fillip to those who have always lauded its creation and pine for a United States of Europe.
The United Kingdom was then a world superpower with, by far, the largest navy on the planet and the largest empire known to history. Within a year of my birth, it confronted, on its own, in a Thermopylae-like last stand, the Nazi tyranny which had enslaved all Europe and which was bent on world conquest. It seemed to all to have embarked on a suicide mission.
Roosevelt cabled its war leader in that darkest hour the words of Longfellow:
Sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O Union, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
In these troubled times we do not ask our fellow Europeans to repay this debt of blood and treasure, only to remember that when they needed us most, we were there for them.
I voted to remain in the referendum of 2016. I did so because I believed that reform of the European Union would inevitably come and that, as a heavyweight insider, we would be one of its principal drivers. I believed that the world was moving towards bigger and bigger power blocks until all, in a distant future, morphed into a world government. I still consider, provided we manage not to self-destruct, that to be the likely outcome.
So why do I now believe that Brexit must be made the best of? First, it was the democratic will of the people. Second, for anyone with an understanding of history, there is no reason to believe that Brexit will be Britain’s undoing; indeed, it may very well achieve the reverse and force it to raise its game. Third, it is the one country in Europe which, because of the peculiarity of its circumstance, could take such a step with a better than reasonable chance of making a success of it. It may not seem so right now, but there is a self-confidence that exists nowhere else among its neighbours. Not one of them would dare contemplate a life beyond Mother Europe. Its perceived embrace smothers them to the extent that they will endure endless pain, à la Greece, and still cling to its coattails.
Why do I take this view? The reason is that Britain’s development has been significantly different. We are an island nation, much like Japan. While influenced hugely by what has happened on our adjacent continent – indeed, regularly interfering to prevent what we perceived as overmighty tyrants developing on our doorstep – we have insisted, nevertheless, on keeping our distance, once the business was done.
Europe’s strength, and its half-millennia dominance of the world, began when it broke the monopoly of the Silk Road’s route into and out of the continent to trade goods. It did this by acquiring maritime expertise and building ships which could withstand three-year voyages and the heaviest seas the natural world could throw against them. This allowed it to trade goods in bulk and without umpteen middlemen taking extortionate cuts along the way stations of the overland route. While this was going on, its fiercely competitive nation states benefited from an overarching and temporising religion, as well as a cultural and scientific breakout led by the city states of Italy which it called the Renaissance. Also, the creation of centres of learning in the universities along with their independence helped speed the process towards the Age of Reason. The rivalry between those city states held much in common with the rivalry that propelled the city states of classical Greece to greatness.
The race across the oceans to explore new riches and bring home old ones naturally favoured the countries with easy access to the Atlantic. That explains why the great maritime empires which came about consisted only of them: Portugal, Spain, England, Holland and France. The next race was to see which of them could become top-dog. In turn it was each. When the dust had finally settled it was England – now fortuitously called Great Britain because of its union with Scotland – which emerged triumphant.
With a revolution in both industry and commerce, a population explosion, vast trading networks and a navy which could see off all others, it is not surprising that Britons came to see themselves as a case apart. Because of their island protection, they had escaped the continental upheavals of rampaging armies and had become quite distinctive – again, much like Japan.
One of Britain’s great strengths is that it was always a pragmatic country. If it worked, adopt it; if it didn’t, ditch it. It was never much interested in dogma or political theorising. That is why it returned to monarchical government after the eleven miserable years of the Cromwell republic. But it made sure that the royal power knew, as a condition of its return, it could never again step out of line in the way the previously executed king had. The lesson was well learned.
Britain’s relative isolation, which fostered evolutionary rather than revolutionary progress – allied to its Protestant work ethic – was one of the reasons its efforts at establishing new countries was so much more successful than its Latin rivals. Compare, for instance, the outcomes for Spain and Portugal’s South American colonies to those of North America, Australia and New Zealand. Even when Britain went to work on existing countries, the institutions and infrastructure it left behind outclassed anything the Latins left in place, and that includes France.
Above all, Britain’s language had become ubiquitous, as had its ‘Beautiful Game’. That game, however, struggled in the heat of the Indian plains so another British game, cricket, is now played in many hotspots instead. Its playtime activities proved almost as alluring as the rest.
All of these and many more are reasons why we Britons should embrace our new future with optimism. Our forebears have sown an amazing legacy. Now is the time to harvest it.
The UK joined the Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union, from a position of weakness in the early seventies – the sick man of Europe, so the country was called at the time. The package sold to Britain was that of a trading arrangement. Beyond the inner circle of continental Europe’s political elites, there was little to no talk of the true direction of travel, which has always been a United States of Europe.
The first signs of where the so-called European Project was really headed was the Maastricht Treaty in British prime minister John Major’s premiership. The final curtain raiser, during that of Gordon Brown’s, was the Lisbon Treaty. (Who can forget the unedifying way he waited to be the last to sign and went through the back door so as not to be photographed signing away his nation’s rights?)
Since the Maastricht Treaty, Brits increasingly formed the opinion that they were losing control of their country. As a once trickle of Brussels directives – which took precedence over British law – turned into a flood, Brits began to question the whole concept of EU membership. It was the erosion of sovereignty which I believe formed the bedrock of the opposition which finally stunned the world last year with their decision to quit.
High among the concerns of the Brexiteers, as those seeking to leave the project have come to be known, was their inability to determine who should come to live among them and how many. It was like saying that you had a house but no say in who could pitch up to stay in it and in what numbers. Just like that flood of pettifogging Brussels directives came a new flood, but one that took jobs from the least skilled and most disadvantaged in society. Cheap, plentiful labour was great for the professional and governing classes and, of course, the bosses, but not so great for those struggling to make ends meet.
Then there was the concept that a group of jurists in the European Court of Justice – many with apparent questionable legal experience – could impose their foreign, codified set of laws on the UK’s English common law legal system. English common law, built up assiduously over a thousand years, has become the most common legal system in the world and today covers 30% of the world’s population in 27% of its 320 legal jurisdictions. It should be no surprise then that Brits, with no little justification, were proud of their legal system and took offence at the idea that the European Court of Justice knows best.
This, I believe, was at the heart of concerns over Europe. For sovereignty covers almost everything, including who comes to live among us and who makes our laws.
Much as the British feel free to criticise their own parliament, they still find it objectionable that others from outside their borders can order them around – especially when those others have never subjected themselves to a British ballot box. Where democratic, sovereign nations are concerned, citizens should have the chance to turf their politicians out if there is a failure to perform or if they wish to try something different. There must be accountability.
So can the UK prosper outside the European Union? Although I voted to remain because I believed we could better influence reform of the EU from the inside, I have taken the view nevertheless that we can prosper outside. If there is any nation whose DNA shrieks global trade, it is Britain. The world’s first multinational company was founded by the British in India, growing so prosperous that it had to create its own army to protect its interests. Even the great Napoleon acknowledged that we were a nation of traders (he used the word shopkeepers, but in essence it’s the same).
I can understand why the countries of mainland Europe cleave together with none daring to contemplate a future outside the bloc. Theirs has been a distinct experience from that of the British. All have suffered the horrors of defeat and occupation down the centuries. We have not.
Brits may not bestride the world with hard power in the way they did a hundred years ago. But hard power in today’s world, as our American cousins have come to realise, does not work in quite the way it used to. Soft power is a different matter, however, and Britain has oodles of that. It reaches into every corner of the globe and the widespread adoption of English in official business helps to grease the wheels. The Commonwealth, which represents 31% of the world’s population – united by language, history, culture and their shared values of democracy, free speech, human rights and the rule of law – never wanted Britain to join the European Union in the first place. So, yes, it is entirely possible that we can thrive outside.
The same bracing winds which once filled the sails of Britain’s ocean-going merchant fleets may be just the winds needed to force us to raise our already decent game to new levels. We must fervently hope that is the case, for Britain is the one country in Europe whose situation has allowed it to stick two fingers up to the oppressive EU elites with any hope of getting away with it.
I wrote some time ago that the EU was making a big mistake by playing hardball with Turkey’s application to become a member. They fear that the entry of a major Muslim country will have a destabilising effect.
They fear a possible Trojan Horse whose admission could immerse our continent in many of the horrors currently being visited on Turkey’s neighbours, Syria and Iraq. They couldn’t be more wrong.
Turkey is the obvious Muslim country which stands any chance of enabling Europe to gain acceptance throughout the Muslim world as a friend. As a member of the EU, it would send a signal to all Muslims that Europe is not irredeemably prejudiced and could happily work with them to build a better and more secure future. Once a member, you could be sure that Turkey would go after the nihilist maniacs with a sure-footedness that is not open to the rest of us.
Remember that Turkey single-handedly kept order throughout the Near East and North Africa for 500 years right up to modern times. Millions of Turks headed for Germany by invitation during the post-war years of the economic miracle to help rebuild that country’s shattered industries and infrastructure. They were known as ‘Guest Workers’ and the understanding was that, in due course, they would return to their homeland. They were not meant to stay.
So little did they offend their German hosts, however, that they were never asked to leave. Theirs proved to be the face of Islam that Europe never needed to fear. Even with the recent controversial admission of the huge refugee influx triggered by Chancellor Merkel’s off the cuff offer, there is not in Germany the festering resentment among Muslims and, indeed, Germans that exists in France. Two reasons account for this. In Germany, there is not the ghettoisation and lack of jobs as in France. Also, France’s Muslims are, for the most part, of Algerian origin and are the legacy of a bitterly savage colonial war of independence. Neither side fully forgave the other.
All of us can agree that Europe is at a crossroad in its relationship with the Muslim world. An implacable death cult has cast a shadow over all the continent’s urban conurbations and the crowd-gathering events which are staged there. Messaging each other in the new Wild West of the internet in an encryption form harder than Enigma to crack, they can operate in cells or as ‘lone wolves’ with manuals provided to allow them online to acquire and assemble deadly bombs. How the zealots of the IRA must regret that they never had such tools.
The result of it all is that people increasingly live in a fear they have never known before. They know the authorities have no answer, and never can, to the lone operator who can drive a truck or buy a knife across a supermarket counter. Even if we succeed, as we very well might, in taking back the land which Isis has claimed for its new Caliphate, its fighters will disperse throughout Muslim lands and perhaps our own and reappear hydra-headed to continue the mayhem. It is a depressing prospect and one to which we can envisage no end.
My own regular visits to London, its museums and places of interest, have lost their appeal. On a recent visit, I found that the dear old British Museum, an endless source of wonderment to me, had a half-hour long queue for semi airport-like security checks. I took one look and went on my way. In a long life, I had hitherto been able to wander up unmolested and pass through its hallowed portals unchallenged. That soon will become a distant memory. Security everywhere has become the order of the day.
We must resist. Turkey can help us for only it, as a Muslim nation closely allied to the West with NATO’s second largest army, can help us confront the threat ideologically. And that is the only way this death cult can be beaten.
Followers of their own faith must turn on them en masse. Their communities and their own families must place them beyond the pale.
The cowardly recruiters and dissemblers who encourage disaffected youngsters whose lives have gone off the rails to make an end of themselves and carry as many as they can into oblivion with them must be taken out of circulation and denied any platform to propagate their poison. Theirs should be a special place in perdition.
Turkey has already won the hearts, as well as plaudits, from the millions driven from their homes in Syria. Their efforts to provide a refuge from Assad’s killing machine dwarf those of any other nation, including Germany. The camps they have set up are a model of humanitarianism; they provide every conceivable facility and resemble more villages more than camps. Turkey receives scant recognition for her huge efforts and, needless to say, massive expense. And this from a nation which, unlike those in the West, cannot be described as rich.
For all the frequently ill-informed criticisms of Turkey’s president, he has proved himself a man with a heart which is more than can be said of many of the rest who weep crocodile tears. With 14 years of enlightened economic policies, he has also achieved growth rates the envy of all but China and India. In short, until these terrible troubles on his border, Turkey was booming.
My own message is clear: Turkey should be embraced, not scorned. If we continue to reject her overtures she will turn her back on us, and rightly so, with dire consequences for any last hope of getting back to normal and putting terrorism back in the malign box where it belongs.
On both sides of the Atlantic there is a dangerous disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. That is why, I suspect, such unlikely characters as Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump have confounded all expectations and caused us to believe that, in the current febrile atmosphere, virtually anything in politics can happen. The same disconnect can be said of the unelected and unaccountable gnomes of Brussels. At the moment we are cynically digesting the latest piece of hyperbole concerning the coming EU referendum and await with trepidation the next shocking apocalyptic revelation.
Genocide and war, they tell us, is a possible consequence if we make the wrong decision, as is a five-million rush to these crowded shores to swell our already ballooning numbers. The ten plagues of Egypt must surely be in the pipeline as the next possible item on the agenda. Which side will jump in with its own 21st century version of these horrors to scare the living daylights out of us is anybody’s guess. Is the public buying any of this nonsense? I suspect not.
Forecasts are notoriously unreliable. We spend billions worldwide trying to predict the weather and still we get it wrong. In the seventies, National Geographic featured scientists forecasting another ice age. In the 1920s, economists were convinced that a return to the gold standard would cure our economic woes. It made them worse. When Mrs Thatcher proposed her remedies, 364 leading economists signed a letter to say they would not work. They did. When the three party leaders, the entirety of the establishment and almost all the chattering classes said we should join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in the early 1990s, the ERM, they were wrong again. Many of the same group of know-alls also wanted us sign up to the euro and predicted doom if we did not. How lucky for us that we declined to listen to them. “We would be able to do our business in Afghanistan without loss of life,” said the defence minister. Nearly 500 died. 13,000 would come to us from Eastern Europe, said Labour. Over 1,000,000 did. When George Osborne proposed austerity, Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, rushed in saying he was “playing with fire.” We ended up with the highest growth rate in the western world and over 2 million new jobs created. The governor of the Bank of England said it would be necessary to put up interest rates when employment fell below 7%. It was not.
So much for the “experts” knowing what will happen. Why should we take any of their forecast seriously?
Referendums may seem like a good idea and, doubtless, they have their place in a working democracy, but they have a way of polarising society in a manner that general elections do not. Perhaps it is because they concern huge and generational issues, the results of which cannot be unpicked five years down the line when you realise you got it wrong. Whatever the reason, they seem to generate a level of bitterness unique to themselves. Remember the nastiness of some of the SNP zealots in 2014? Had I been a unionist at that time, I certainly would have thought it prudent to keep my head down and definitely not put a poster in my Glasgow flat window.
The truth is that whatever is decided on 23rd June, the show will go on and the good ship Great Britain Plc. will plough on much as it did throughout all those centuries before the European Union was even heard of.
At this moment in history it cannot be denied that the EU is going through a rough patch. The euro may yet implode; even moneybags Germany has not enough to save beleaguered Spain, never mind troubled Italy if the markets call time on them. The single currency was certainly ill-conceived and has massive problems which have yet to be addressed. As for the Schengen Zone – that great leap of idealism – it poses a huge security risk in this volatile, post-9/11 world and it could be dynamite, literally. The EU’s policies are driving extremism in Europe leading to the rise of neo-Fascist parties. In terms of job creation, the EU is currently a disaster area and its growth rates is abysmal (on both of these counts we are an exception). A good case, you might argue for the Brexit. Why cling to a loser?
At the same time, you might equally argue that to cut ourselves loose might be to put ourselves on the wrong side of history. As well as staying at peace, a continent united is obviously going to be able to make its voice heard loudly in the world and its trade deals carry enormous clout.
Europe’s whole history since Rome fell apart has been to find a way of getting back together again. Various of its more powerful states have sought to do it under their own hegemony, but that has been unacceptable to the rest. Europe’s glory, and you have to say achievement, today is that it has found a way of doing so largely by consent rather than by coercion. Yet unfortunately in many important areas it has messed up and its democratic credentials are seriously flawed.
Perhaps a vote to leave might provide the system with the jolt it needs to make it acceptable, not just to us but to others who do not wish to see their identity subsumed in a monolithic super state which wishes to homogenise them all into a blandness and make all Europe seem the same. If Europe is to succeed a way must be found to preserve its charming idiosyncrasies as well as a meaningful level of sovereignty for its nation states.
The Europe which we put our signature to almost two generations ago is not the Europe we are being asked to vote on in a few weeks’ time. Then it was all about trade, except that is wasn’t.
The European Common Market began its life as something of a confidence trick. The political classes knew from the very beginning that it was a political project designed to relegate the nation states of Europe to a subservient role. They had concluded that they were nothing but trouble and were the biggest single cause of its terrible wars.
Just the same they knew that the peoples of Europe were, almost without exception, lovers of the lands which bore them and felt a deep attachment to the cultures which had developed within their borders. Talk at that stage of a European Union might have frightened the horses and run the risk of it being still-born. So they had to tread carefully. A mighty trading bloc though? Well, who could object to that? We all want to improve our standard of living.
Thus was born the Common Market. Europe had always been strong on markets and the use of that word was perfectly designed to allay suspicions. They were content to play the long game. Stage one was to lock the lot in lucrative trade arrangements, recognising that nations doing the bulk of their business with each other could not, thereafter, easily break free.
Actually, the whole business had begun even before the Treaty of Rome with the creation of the Iron and Steel Community of France, Germany and the Benelux countries. The idea there was that you couldn’t go charging off with a secret re-armament programme, as Hitlerite Germany had done, if all your iron and steel came from a common source.
Europe had had enough of war and a system, so they reasoned, had to be created whereby future outbreaks would be next to impossible. Although there was nothing wrong about that, hadn’t the setting up of NATO nine years earlier achieved that? As Europe grew richer – helped in no small part by the generosity of Uncle Sam with his Marshall Aid programme – it became safe to move on to stage two of the project and chuck overboard that boring old, and grudgingly conceded title, Common Market. Now it became the European Community.
Still no feathers were ruffled, but the more discerning of us could see where the project was headed. Not long afterwards came the great European Union and all was plain to see. With that came the burgundy coloured passports that let us all know – in case naively, a few of us nursed any continuing illusions of national independence – that we were now part of a burgeoning superstate. The Euro was meant to be the final brick in the wall.
The reason all the member states, with the exception of Britain, had been so accepting of the project was that they believed that the nation state, through its inability to protect them from the ravages of war, had been discredited. Only Britain’s island status had saved it from occupation. It therefore had no reason to lose faith in the nation. It stood proud of its institutions and the fact that its Industrial Revolution had changed the face of humanity. Also its exalted former position as the world’s greatest empire made it harder for it to become just another brick in the wall.
But now we must decide: do we cut loose and regain that independence which has been lost, or do we stick with it and with the confidence of a major player work within the system to bring it to the democratic accountability which we Anglo Saxons insist on? We are far from being alone in wishing this.
The world is increasingly moving in favour of what may be called the Anglosphere with our language and business models reigning supreme. I do not doubt that Britain PLC could cut a swathe in the world, but do we want a mighty power on our doorstep which we are unable to influence?
Nevertheless, worries abound concerning immigration, which apart from putting all our public services under strain, has the power to change the character of our country forever. Much of the fury and distrust of the political class which drives the Trump presidential campaign in America is at work here in Britain. They never asked us, say the doubters, about immigration and they never asked us if we were willing to cede sovereignty. They seem only interested in looking after themselves. And as to what Europe was really all about that, well that too, was founded on a lie.
Although the EU was a work of the utmost deceit, we are where we are and we should not necessarily quit because of that. Perhaps the best reason to stay is a geopolitical one. Out of the EU, however brilliantly we handle our affairs, with a population of 64 million ours might end up being a forlorn voice crying in the wilderness.
It is not an easy choice to make. But then who ever said life was easy?
Poor, benighted Greece. Yes, it lived beyond its means, encouraged by greedy bankers all too willing to see it mortgage its future. And, yes, the Greek way of doing things seems decidedly un-Germanic.
What an unedifying carry-on that scrambled, weekend marathon was, called to decide Greece’s fate and preserve the integrity of the euro. A two days’ notice summons went out to the nine heads of government not in the euro who were told to attend that Sunday. Then they were told to stand down. They didn’t need a grand council of all twenty-eight EU members after all. Talk about an omnishambles and the Grand Old Duke of York.
It was always meant to be that, once enrolled, you were as locked in as all fifty states of the American union are to the dollar. But it turns out that that this is not the case. Former Foreign Secretary William Hague once made the mistake of saying that belonging to the euro was like being in a burning building in which all the exit doors are locked. Really! Wolfgang Schäuble, the hard-line German finance minister, had actually drawn up a plan to show Greece the exit door if it did not comply with EU terms.
There are many truths to this latter day Greek tragedy. Ironic it is that it should happen to Greece of all countries, which wrote the scripts of the very first tragedies concerning the foibles of human nature. Just as it was beginning to make progress under austerity – though there remained much to do, as the latest Brussels proposals made clear – a crazy, economically illiterate cabal of schoolboy lefties gained power. (They once believed that Communism was the answer.) Their silly promises of an end to austerity were seized on by a weary electorate. But how could they work that particular piece of economic sophistry? It was like asking someone to turn base metal into gold.
We are today in a situation in which a mere eleven million Greeks labour under a mountain of debt equal to what our sixty-four million people spend on the NHS in a year and a half. It was, and is, insupportable.
Once again the banks have a case to answer. It is a truism that a lender has as much of a responsibility as the borrower. What is abundantly clear is that the lenders did not exercise due diligence. They knew the Greek character and that once they enjoyed the security of the euro with its low borrowing costs would, likely as not, go on a spending spree and end up living high on the hog, enjoying a standard of living way beyond what their productivity justified.
But while the good times rolled the banks looked the other way and that fatally flawed conception – a currency (monetary) union without a fiscal and banking one was able to bumble along… just. But it was never going to avoid the attention of the speculators on the world’s money markets when the good times ended, as they always do. And boy, did they end! When the banks were exposed as having lent to millions of mainly Americans (but, yes, us too) on mortgages that they knew were likely to go belly-up, they then artfully – and I believe criminally – wrapped up those toxic, sub-prime debts in packages mixed in with sound debts and unloaded them to unsuspecting other banks all around the world. The consequence was that every bank viewed every other bank with suspicion and would not lend to them (an absolutely necessary requirement under the capitalist system) for fear that the other bank had saddled itself with lashings of toxic debt and may actually be insolvent.
When the giant Lehman Brothers bank went down and the Federal Reserve refused to save it, shock waves went round the world. It was a seismic event in that cloistered world of banking which everywhere shut down on lending. It sent the system into a tail spin. Thus we became familiar with a new term: the credit crunch.
Returning to Greece, the bailiffs of the big boys, (the Troika’s IMF, ECB (European Central Bank) and the European Commission) have effectively moved in. Proud, humiliated Greece is being told it must provide collateral for the monies advanced. It must sell off all it can of its public sector along with whatever else can raise hard cash. The next thing we’ll be hearing is that they’ve slapped a ‘For Sale’ notice on the Parthenon. What has been needed throughout, but which has been totally lacking, is a generosity of spirit. If the 520 million people of Europe cannot handle 11 million, admittedly errant, citizens, then something is seriously wrong.
The fact is it is perfectly possible to be a member of the European family (i.e. the EU) – after all, there are nine of us who are not using the euro – without being beholden and tied to that flawed currency. It is equally possible that if one day that currency proves itself by correcting its inbuilt defects and then goes on to become the world’s reserve currency, replacing the dollar, we may ourselves rethink our position and apply to join. But that day is a long way off.
Meantime what of Greece and its mountain of unrepayable debt? 92% of the monies advanced to Greece do not go to helping that country get back on its feet, but to servicing its debts. As a deadline for repayment looms, Greece is handed monies which it must immediately pay back. Thus, while for book-keeping purposes, the situation seems under control it is anything but. It is an altogether hopeless situation. In essence it’s no different from that of a person taking up ever more credit cards to pay off a loan from his bank.
Europe, and in particular Germany, should remember that when the Americans put together that incredibly generous Marshall Aid programme to rescue them from an even more dire situation than present day Greece’s at the end of World War II, there was a total forgiveness of debt. Without that there would have been no recovery of Europe for decades. It remains my hope where little Greece is concerned that our great continent will show a generosity of spirit similar to what the Americans showed with their Marshall Aid programme and declare a forgiveness of debt. Without it Greece has no hope.
A tragic consequence of the present situation which few have thought about is that we are in danger of losing, through neglect and vandalism, much of that peerless heritage we so like to visit and wonder at. The treasures of European antiquity, of which the Greeks are custodians, are already suffering terribly from thefts and shocking neglect. What with the destruction going on in Aleppo, the oldest inhabited city on earth, at Palmyra, Babylon and indeed throughout the Middle East – the very cradle of civilisation – the world will wake up one day and realise that it wasn’t just present day humans who paid the price, but the surviving evidence of what its distant ancestors achieved down the ages.
What are we to make of the tragedy which is unfolding across the beautiful waters of the Aegean? Here in high summer when they should be enjoying the fruits of their glorious holiday season they are locked in a battle for their very survival with the giants of north Europe and their banking systems.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Greece has already paid a terrible price for its profligacy and easy living on the back of a strong currency of which it was never qualified to be part. Their economy has had been bludgeoned by the money men into shrinking by a horrendous 25% and their youth unemployment exceeds 60%.
Right at the beginning, the books appealing for entry into the euro were cooked, helped in no small part by that ‘Great Vampire Squid’, Goldman Sachs. But while the Germans and the rest knew very well how the Greeks went about their business and that they were not a suitable candidate, political Europe had to take precedence over economic Europe and they let them in.
With other weaker economies such those of the Spanish, Portuguese, Irish and Italians allowed to join the party, the Germans ended up with a currency much less strong than their old Deutschmark would have been and that made it much easier for them to flog their BMWs and the like. Borrowing rates for these weaker economies became much lower than ever they would have been had they been using their own currencies so, of course, they were happy to buy north Europe’s products as well as treat themselves to a much higher standard of living than their economic performances warranted.
All was well throughout the goods times that preceded the financial crash of 2008. That ill-conceived monetary union – which lacked the also essential fiscal union – of the euro could bumble along so long as there were no headwinds. But, boy, it wasn’t so much headwinds that arrived but rather a hurricane. The Credit Crunch brought the Western world’s economies to the brink of meltdown.
Today the weakest of the dominoes stands in imminent danger of falling, with the risk that others will follow. And the country that benefited most during the good times, Germany, insists on playing hardball. It needs to show a bit of humility – as well as compassion – and realise that it must take its share of the blame for the plight that Greece finds itself in today.
Despite its own banks, along with French and others, being exposed to a possible Greek default of alarming proportions, it knows that a Greek economy that cannot grow because of acute austerity will never ever be able to pay off its debts. It needs relief and restructuring. Long before this present crisis broke they acknowledged this fact. But what now are the Troika’s proposals? Even deeper austerity. Can we be surprised that a government that was elected on a mandate to end austerity has thrown up its hands and said enough?
If Greece on Sunday, in its touching desire to remain at the heart of the European family – but also out of sheer terror at the thought of the consequences of being cast adrift – votes to accept the Troika’s diktats, it faces never-ending recession. If the Greek people vote no on Sunday, they will stay in the EU and possibly even the single currency, but mayhem could follow with a complete national shutdown. Could Brussels stand by and see this happen?
Actually the majority of economists believe that this seemingly bonkers course would serve it best (Argentina went down a similar road). Economists say there would be six months of hell, or possibly longer, but then a future would open up for Greece. With holiday costs cut to half their present level, we would cast aside that old warning to ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’. Greece would become the continent’s playground as never before. Poor, suffering Hellas, the first of all Europe’s civilisations, would start to smile again.
I was taken aback recently to learn of a serious proposal to set up a school for Gays. While a firm supporter of not stigmatising minorities – as a child of an unmarried mother at a time such things were scandalous, I know just what that means – I felt that this was simply a bridge too far. In fact I believe it could be counter-productive, harming the very people it was designed to protect; a classic case of the law of unintended consequences. Humans across the world belong to a single family. If you remove certain sections of society from the mainstream and create an environment in which they circulate for substantial and formative periods only among people of their own preferences you risk encouraging the majority to believe that they really don’t want to belong to the mainstream. We know the aims of Gays in making this proposal are laudable; they wish to experience and benefit from an education free from the slings and arrows of a taunting minority. But the answer, I fear, is not to remove them from the orbit of the bullies but to bear down and educate bullies into accepting that it is they – the bully – not their victim, who is the problem. It was never more clear to me than during my army service in Northern Ireland that if people are ghettoed from their fellows they will not relate to them and, as a consequence, would be capable of doing terrible things. And there, job discrimination was total – in schools, churches, policing, pubs, town halls, housing and just about anything else you could think of. The first question that any employer asked of you was, “are you Catholic or Protestant?” We saw in blood where that led.
Social attitudes can be turned full circle. We know this from things we have already achieved. Do you remember that ‘Carry On’ film in which a partying group of young medics came out and piled into an open-topped sports car and roared off? The noisy, raucous group were all the worse for drink. We thought, at the time, it very funny and so did the producer. Neither he nor we would think that now. In fact we are appalled that we ever thought it so. In similar vein was the ubiquitous glamorising of smoking on the silver screen. Also, look at our previous indifference to the disabled; we never bothered to put wheelchair access into anything. Then, just let a landlord – as happened when I first lived and worked in London – try putting in his window a sign reading ‘No Blacks, Irish or Dogs’. All hell would break loose. Women’s prospects have improved immeasurably from what they were and so have peoples’ of other races. I could go on. Indeed, some might argue that in today’s Britain your life chances might be improved if you were not of Caucasian stock. Racial, religious, gender and disabled abuse have all joined the bonfire of the unacceptable, as has hate language. Also that pernicious culture of being able to touch women up and, worse, and get away with it is thankfully at an end, though I do wonder if we are right in pursuing old men to the grave. But I acknowledge that justice must trump everything and you could argue that they were lucky to have got away with it for as long as they did before justice finally caught up with them. Finally, while we’re at it, let’s remember that poor unmarried mother whose family once turfed her out. That was not a million miles removed from stoning her.
My point in highlighting all this is to show that Europe in times past – often with us as flag-bearer – has had very backward attitudes. In addition to this we have been exceptionally cruel, physically as well as emotionally. It therefore ill behoves us, as we make progress, to lambast the Muslim world for its tardiness. The whole world hardly needs to take lessons from us in this area. There was a time, which lasted for seven hundred years, when Muslim Spain led the world in virtually all the sciences. While it was rescuing and translating almost all the Greek classics, we were transporting ourselves across the Mediterranean Sea and despoiling their prosperous, peaceable lands in Palestine. Our ‘great’ King Richard (The Lionheart) – who spoke no English and spent only a few months out of his eleven-year reign in England, bankrupting it in the process – wrought such cruelty on Crusade that even today Muslim mothers will quieten their little ones by saying “shhh… King Richard is coming”. He once decapitated 5,000 prisoners on the beach at Acre. Strange it is then that of all our many illustrious monarchs he is the only one honoured with a statue outside Parliament. An unfathomable people we are for making such a judgement. And in terms of cruelty, no Muslim country that I am aware of ever matched our grisly hanging, drawing and quartering routine, nor Bloody Mary’s 300+ burnings at the stake in a five year period, nor Vlad the Impailer’s bestial cruelties, nor the horrors of the 30 Years’ War.
It is very true that we have today a terrible problem – to put it mildly – with certain crazy Muslim men, but we have had our share of crazy men, even if they have not specialised in running wild on the streets with butchers’ knives and Kalashnikovs. The sheer magnitude and level of depraved brutality which our own continent has exhibited throughout the recent century should humble us considerably in our dealings with the rest of humanity. It certainly does not qualify us to hand out advice as though it is coming from on high, and as though we approach the world’s problems with clean hands. However, it is my belief that it is this very barbarism which has made Europe determined to do things differently in the future.
It may not seem so but we are moving into a kinder, more caring world. Not only have we such institutions now as the International Criminal Court, whereby previously unchecked rulers can be held to account, but we show concern and provide help when manmade or natural catastrophe overwhelms one of our brother countries. This is new. Every country now acknowledges that it has a duty to work towards some sort of a welfare state for its people. This, too, is new. Making war without United Nations authorisation is an option becoming increasingly difficult for sovereign states.
Social networking, Skype, emails and the instant availability of facts and information – as well as the next day delivery of goods on eBay and Amazon – makes ours a more joined-up world than it has ever been. And we are only at the beginning. Within three generations, virtually the entire human race will be able to communicate with each other in a universal language. What incredible good fortune that it happens to be our own which will be that medium – and what business opportunities that should present us with if we have the wit to seize them!
Meantime we must hold our nerve as we navigate through what undoubtedly will be treacherous waters, finding ways of containing and then rolling back the bone-headed fanatics who seek excitement on foreign battlefields as well as at home in the misplaced belief that their warped vision is the future. Yet we must do so without compromising our essential liberties and bring our Muslim brothers and sisters on board. Their thinking, young people, in particular, want all the same things we have, including democracy. We must find ways of getting them to prevail over their rogue elements and bring them on board too.