Why I used to be pro-EU
I used to be a passionate supporter of the EU for a number of reasons.
One of my parents is from a part of the EU that is on the border of – and was repeatedly the scene of battles between – two large European nation states (think Basque country). I liked the idea that, under the EU, those borders would become more fluid and that this would allow border regions, like my parent’s, to interact harmoniously with the big nation states between which they were sandwiched, not to have to identify with one or the other – to choose between their parents as it were. The EU would, I hoped, allow those regions to express their own cultural identity as well as enjoy self-government in certain areas, but without becoming parochial backwaters – because they would be part of a wider European entity.
I think Europe has common cultural roots. I was, and still am, someone who likes cultural mixture; the unexpected pleasures that arise from the encounter between different cultures across all sorts of fields. For me, to think of the expression of that culture in national terms is to miss the important reciprocal influence between national or regional cultures, be it of Monteverdi on Bach, or the mutual influence between Alphonse Daudet, the voice of Provence, and the quintessentially English Charles Dickens (Daudet claimed to be an admirer of the English novelist, but if you ever read Dickens’ The Uncommercial Traveller (1875), the similarities to Lettres de Mon Moulin, written a decade earlier, are remarkable), or Paul Valéry on T. S. Eliot, or Andrea Mantegna on Albrecht Dürer. The nation state, it seemed to me, wanted to harden the differences between national cultures and at the same time homogenise culture within nations, suppressing the rich regional variety they contained. The European Union seemed to me, romantically I now realise, to embody both the universality and multiple particularities of European culture.
The Entombment of Christ: Andrea Mantegna (1465-1475); Albrecht Dürer (1512)
European countries were – and to a great extent still are – used to a lazy, protectionist, clubby relationship between States and large companies or commercial interest groups (like truck drivers in Greece), where the latter were (and to a great extent still are) protected by trade barriers and offered their customers poor products or services. In return the State had influence over them, politicians would get kickbacks and they were used as an arm of the State’s economic policy – to employ people or boost the economy. They were lazy. This allowed a privileged class to work in protected state or semi-state jobs. Whenever the model led to weak growth the State simply borrowed more or devalued. In my pro-EU days, I saw the EU as a way of opening these complacent, corrupt rent seekers to competition, making them work for a living and taking away the establishment’s various get out of jail free cards.
That I was wrong is demonstrated, in part, by the fact that corruption is still such an endemic problem in the EU.
The other Europe that could have been
I am still attracted to aspects of the ideal of the EU that I used to cling to, but I think the EU today is very different. The model which, I think, might have worked for the EU was the model of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (c 1200-1815) or the Hapsburg Empire (c 1270 – 1918), a kind of loose, light touch, federal union which moved forward tentatively, by trial and error, not according to heavily explicit and rationalised principles. One that allowed different countries to try different things. One that didn’t think there was one correct, rational way of doing things and that anyone who didn’t follow the script was backward or evil (as Austria, Italy, Hungary and Poland currently seem to be perceived by the EU). And, crucially, one that was built on and proudly embraced its culture and traditions, evolved over centuries.
Unfortunately, the model the EU seems to be going for is centralising, complicated, micro-managing and based on heavily explicit and hyper-rationalised principles; the French Revolutionary model. Like the French revolutionaries, the EU regards much of the culture and tradition it inherits as old fashioned and out of step with the abstract values it regards as “progressive.” Today’s EU is embarrassed to be European.
Both the EU and the French Revolution tried to make a clean break with tradition in favor of new values they regard(ed) as superior. I know some people admire the apparent rationality and modernity of such an EU. As for me, it has none of the attractions of the EU I once believed in. But what I particularly fear is not so much the principles of this maximalist EU, much as I dislike them, but their dogmatic, Panglossian and uncritical application, and in particular the second order effects they generate – the law of unintended consequences.
“In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there’s a big difference.”
At the same time as I perceived the EU’s shift to the “French revolutionary” model, I also began to question the globalist narrative which I had previously and uncritically assumed was a good thing and which, increasingly, underpinned the drive to integrate the EU’s constituent member states. Free trade, free movement and internationalisation can be good things, I think, but when you turn them into a hyper-rational dogma and apply that dogma uncritically, without giving people a choice, they become dangerous. I now think that countries should have a choice.
The UK has been a sanctuary for European migrants for centuries before the EU was a gleam in Jean Monnet’s eye. Victor Hugo wrote Les Miserables in the Channel Islands because he’d pissed off the emperor Napoleon. We don’t need the EU to travel or mix between European nations. If you give the British a choice as to whom they admit, they will be happy to admit many Europeans (like me) for many years to come. But it has to be their choice (I write about this in detail here). And with choice comes the return of the tentative trial and error that I prefer to the shock and awe, universal free movement, no ifs and buts approach we have currently. Free movement is fine as an abstract principle, but that abstract principle shouldn’t be applied in an abstract, absolutist, à la Bastille way. The same is true with free trade.
My question to advocates of European freedom of movement is this: if immigration is a good thing (as I think certain types and certain amounts of immigration are), then why not give people the choice? If an immigration-friendly policy is such a blessing, surely it will also be a vote winner? The answer to this question which many supporters of freedom of movement implicitly give – and which I suspect many are reluctant to voice – is that, according to them, the average voter is too stupid to realise that immigration is a universally good thing. Behind many of the EU and its supporters’ fundamental principles lies an assumption that government by technocrats is a good thing. It would be better, they think, that the uneducated voters should allow technocrats with superior intellect to govern them for their own good.
That idea, which is as old as Plato’s Republic, sounds like a good one – in theory. In practice, the technocrats gave us the global financial crisis, quantitative easing, diesel car incentives, low fat, high sugar and carbo diets and the Iraq, Libyan and Syrian wars. So to those who advocate purportedly enlightened, technocratic government I now say, “nein, danke” or “no, grazie.”
The other things I don’t like about the EU are all connected to this fundamental design flaw of theoretical hyper-rationalisation leading – in practice – to over-complication and from there to second order effects with unintended consequences.
Unintended consequences: family life for killers
The ECJ, ECHR and the rest of the alphabet soup of human rights organisations sponsored by the EU are a good example. No one objects to the idea of a court that defends human rights. No one – or no one I know – is a supporter of inhuman wrongs. But the codification of those abstract human rights has become hyper-rationalised: if we uphold freedom, then why are we not upholding freedom in this case or that case? This leads to a complex set of rules which then produce second order effects, many of which are probably unintended and certainly unwelcome, such as making it impossible to deport illegal immigrants who commit murder because they have a right to family life.
The EU is also responsible for a lot of bureaucratic legislation. I know a lot of myths circulate about EU legislation like straight bananas, but there are many out there which are really very bad.
MIFID in financial services is a good example (I write about MIFID here and recommend this report on it by the IEA). The abstract idea of a free market and more competition in retail financial services might sound great. But in order to satisfy all the interested parties this abstract idea is embodied in a heinously complex set of rules. This forces companies to produce reams and reams of reports about every activity they undertake. This is supposedly to protect investors, but there is no evidence that any of these reports are read (like the disclaimers at the end of a prospectus or the Ts&Cs of e-commerce companies, more of which below) or that they have protected a single European investor. However, these burdens massively raise the fixed costs of operation (second order effect) which has put lots of smaller companies out of business (unintended consequence – or always the plan of the big brokers like Goldman?). So, the local brokers and market makers who helped small companies come to market or who invested in niche stocks are being crowded out by J P Morgan and Blackrock who are – surprise surprise – massive supporters of the EU. What is more sinister is that these smaller brokers contributed to a diversity of opinion, about markets, stocks, the economy, whatever. It was crazy, small outfits like this who were the heroes of The Big Short, the lone voices in the wilderness crying out that the sub-prime market was a bubble. Now that diversity is being asphyxiated by MIFID, and the only ones who can operate are the big Remain supporting beasts – who pretended sub-prime was a great thing before unloading it on their clients.
Although not an example of bureaucratic legislation, quantitative easing is another big related problem with the EU. Of course, the UK is engaging in QE and will continue to do so outside the EU (alas). But a large, liquid, homogenous market (thanks to the Euro) which can be sold across Europe (thanks in part to Mifid) makes QE a lot easier to put into practice than would be the case if it were done by national central banks in isolation. QE was supposed to stop the EU banking system from freezing up. That was avoided several years ago. Banks are now recapitalised, more or less, although they’re not lending very widely, but that’s for a variety of reasons. Yet QE continues. The problem is that it has flowed into existing assets, not new businesses. So it’s made asset owners very rich (second order effect). It’s been great for the big US investment banks (unintended consequence) who are – surprise surprise – massive supporters of the EU. They earn fees on the asset value and they trade the inflated stock. This QE also props up overall asset values which enables banks to keep lending to companies which otherwise would go bust (second order effect). However the bubble in housing prices sucks a massive amount of borrowing into real estate lending and away from new companies which, by definition, don’t have any inflated assets yet (another second order effect). A friend of mine in the City wrote a report showing both new company formations and bankruptcies at all time lows. So we are stuck with a massive case of constipation, where QE stops the economy from adjusting by killing off fat, inefficient businesses and providing capital for new, dynamic ones to start (unintended consequence). And rather than have a market which prices assets in a tentative, trial and error manner, that helps us find the right price for things, we have a price that is rigged by centrally dictated QE.
QE however is a very risky business. As soon as it stops, asset prices will probably collapse. And now here’s the thing. MIFID, while making it almost impossible for small, independent investment firms to operate – in order, so they claim, to protect investors – made it easy for JP Morgan and Blackrock to stuff these unwitting investors up the wazoo with assets over-inflated by QE. It’s an accident waiting to happen (I write about QE’s impact on asset prices here).
Working time directive
We see the same with employment legislation such as the working time directive and workers rights connected to human rights overseen by the ECJ. In theory, it’s great. In practice it’s complicated. So only large companies can meet the fixed cost of dealing with the complexity. So, it creates a competitive moat which benefits the big businesses who are – surprise surprise – massive supporters of the EU.
Unpasteurised milk and horse meat
EU consumer health is another nice idea in the abstract. You can buy from any producer in Europe and know it meets universal safety standards – what’s not to like? But the abstract concept of safety was hyper-rationalised: how does safety apply to this product? To that product? And so, you get regulations on unpasteurised milk in cheese leading to particular regional cheeses disappearing in favour of bland, mass produced cheeses by big companies. This legislation famously has outlawed the traditional kokoretsi sausage in Greece. Complying with the food safety rules is too complicated for small cheese makers who want to make traditional cheese with unpasteurised milk. The ability to comply creates a huge competitive moat for the big companies who are – surprise surprise – massive supporters of the EU. And with cheese as with Mifid it is diversity and variety, whether of cheeses or opinions on the market, that suffer.
At the same time, just as with QE, all this small, artisanal manufacturer crushing legislation did nothing to stop the horse meat scandal.
[Addition 5 October 2019] The EU Food Safety authority is also encouraging the use of artificial ingredients like aspartame, which are too new for their risk to health to be fully known (see Telegraph report here). This is classic EU micromanagement storing up tail risks, very similar to their push for diesel cars.
Common Agricultural Policy
No list of the EU’s dysfunctional policies is complete without a reference to the Common Agricultural Policy, which pays farmers for output and hectares farmed. It is expensive, inefficient and wasteful. Lots has been written on the subject. Michael Gove’s proposal to tie subsidies to environmental outcomes is one positive from Brexit against which I have yet to see a single valid objection.
GDPR is very similar to MIFID. Protecting your private data, giving you control over who uses it and for what – what’s not to like? But, in practice, the laws are so complex that no one understands how they work. Least of all the millions of people ticking the box on the 20 page opt-in to get whatever free or discounted thing they’re being offered. Big companies, with their armies of lawyers, can and will find ways to dance rings around consumers and use their data how they want to. Small companies, who have to deal with this stuff at ten o’clock after they’ve finished trading, done the VAT returns, ordered the supplies and made the kids dinner, are stuffed. So, they will either pay lots of money to a GDPR consultant or DIY and risk being hauled over the coals. And they will be unable to exploit the data to the same extent as the big companies, putting them at a disadvantage in the market place.
Worse though are Articles 11 and 13, recently approved by the European Parliament. In theory, they create a perfectly Cartesian system where all copyrighted material is duly paid for. In practice, bloggers, vloggers and other citizen journalists have to pay for anything and everything copyrighted they use, whether they make a penny of income from the material they’re putting out. Think tanks, big media organisations and corporations will all do fine. They’ll either pay or find a loophole not to. But the individual with a particular story to tell is put at a disadvantage. And always has the threat of being slapped with the “meme tax” if they say anything that goes against the establishment dogma. Since there are millions of images and links being posted all the time, not all of them will be policed.
There is, therefore, considerable discretion available to authorities as to whom they choose to prosecute. Such discretion has always been used as a tool by political authorities.
The EU Ministry of Truth
Another horrendous example of EU legislation is the EU’s plan to become involved in the policing of so called “fake news.”
If it really were possible for authorities to know what is real and fake then life would be easy. But the whole point is that there are many different opinions out there. That’s democracy. So what is real and fake will always be open to interpretation, making any legislation and its application highly complex (spot a pattern). Any small internet publisher will either have to face high fixed costs of monitoring compliance (second order effect), or the risk of getting fined an amount they can’t pay, or simply tow the line and censor their own opinions (unintended – or in this case probably intended – consequence). As with Mifid, this plays right into the hands of the big, established MSM companies who are – surprise surprise – massive supporters of the EU.
Moreover, there is a kind of paradox here. We don’t really know what is and isn’t fake news. The best thing to do is to have a variety of people trying to find things out. By restricting and frightening the independent media in this way the EU is short circuiting the very process according to which we find the truth which it presupposes in its sanctions against fake news. In so doing, it restricts the diversity of opinion and culture which it was supposed to enable.
It only gets worse when you see who these “fact-checking” organisations, which purport to fight fake news by subjecting statements by media outlets and politicians to objective, non-partisan scrutiny, are. They are a deeply ideological, new world order, globalist constellation of organisations, many of whom have deep ties to the US military industry:
- Facebook recently appointed the Atlantic Council as a fact checker. The Atlantic Council supported the Iraq war and its leading members, like Stephen J. Hadley, endorsed the fake news spread about weapons of mass destruction in order to justify it.
- The former editor of Snopes, another fact checker retained by Facebook, claimed Facebook “used us [Snopes] for crisis PR” and that Snopes was biased against Donald Trump and in favor of the Democrat Party (see also here and here).
- Integrity Initiative, which claims to be “dedicated to revealing and combating propaganda and disinformation” is funded by the British Foreign Office and NATO and engages in smear campaigns against left-wing opponents of Western military intervention in places like Syria and the Ukraine (see also here and here).
- The GMF Alliance for Securing Democracy’s Hamilton 68 “Russian disinformation” dashboard was the source for the now discredited claim that “600 twitter accounts” are agents of Russian influence. The appalling warmonger Bill Kristol is on its Advisory Council.
Only today, we find out from Mintpress that Newsguard, another of the fact checkers “appointed” by Facebook, is connected to the Deep State and American military establishment.
More troubling still, Newsguard — by virtue of its deep connections to government and Silicon Valley — is lobbying to have its rankings of news sites installed by default on computers in U.S. public libraries, schools, and universities as well as on all smartphones and computers sold in the United States.
I wonder how the EU views this:
Is there great freedom of speech because it’s free and easy for the media outlets like Mintpress to publish even if they’re blacklisted by Newsguard?
Or is there censorship because an organisation like Newsguard can steer people in public libraries and schools or on smartphones away from outlets like Mintpress who tell the awkward truths about the failure of US interventionism?
Whatever the case, the EU is, right now, proposing to have fake news policed by fact checking organisations. It may not be Newsguard, but how do we know it won’t be a company with the same values or ideology? The EU’s recent self-congratulatory press release on its success on cracking down on “illegal hate speech” is not encouraging for advocates of free speech.
As Juvenal might have asked, “quis factcheckiet ipsos factcheckes?” The fact-checkers themselves have performed rather poorly in any fact-checking exercise carried out on them.
The EU’s approach to the migrant crisis is also deeply flawed. I wrote about it in 2015 and stand by my points.
Who’s in charge?
It is true, certainly, as defenders of the EU say, that a lot of the legislation which is blamed on the EU is agreed by national governments in the council of Europe, or, in fact, domestic legislation passed by the House of Commons but blamed on the EU. In theory, the UK government gets a right of veto, so that should be fine. In theory. In practice, the discussion happens among heads of state in a smoke filled room, and when the decision comes back no one really knows who to blame. It’s opaque and hard to understand. Unless you’re someone specialised in that sort of thing, someone like a lobbyist. The direct accountability is not broken but it is made harder to implement. This is a classic second order effect which is illustrated in brilliant threads by Chris K-B about how Guy Verhofstad became leader of the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiations, despite being a fantastically unpopular and unsuccessful politician, and on the Council of Europe’s undemocratic decision making process. As James Holland describes in this insightful thread, this murky decision making structure provides big business, including big American technology companies and the secretive Business Europe group, with the perfect cover to influence EU policy away from public view. Indeed, recent changes to the EU’s procedures have increased the obscurity in which its decisions are taken.
The same is true, to a lesser extent, of legislation passed by the House of Commons. Most people don’t have the time or the expertise to know what’s going on. So the UK MPs can use the EU as a cover for passing legislation which makes them unpopular but which they can then blame on the EU. This is exactly what Tony Benn criticised about Brussels, and, although I mocked him at the time, I recognise now that he was right.
As Tim Martin said on the Today Programme on 30 March 2017:
I think … it’s been very difficult to … influence regulations over recent years because it’s been impossible to ascertain, for ah the layperson, where EU law … ends and British law begins. Now, we’ll know that … all laws end at the Houses of Parliament and if you, if you speak to the press, they have the power to alter the law, and that’s exactly I think what, why democracy works – it’s …, it’s not such a byzantine system as you previously had. There are a lot of British laws I don’t think get proper scruity now, because of the fact that MPs don’t understand.
The idea of governments agreeing common laws according to a principle of subsidiarity is fine in theory. In practice, it leads to complexity which leads to a situation where, as Martin puts it, even “MPs don’t understand” and therefore no ordinary voter has a cat’s chance in hell of understanding where the laws come from. This leads (second order effect) to lower scrutiny of and accountability for laws which leads to bad laws (unintended consequences).
Rembrant and Plantu
The values of the new, French Revolution inspired concept of Europe are epitomised by the iconography which artists with those values use to represent and capture the feelings of people in periods of crisis. A good example is this image, by French cartoonist Plantu, which trended on Twitter after the 2016 bomb attacks in Brussels by Islamic State:
Plantu, though anti-Brexit, is often critical of the EU, but only because it isn’t welcoming enough toward migrants. In other words the EU isn’t EUrocratic enough for him. His cartoon is a classic in the “pray for” genre with which many responded to the epidemic of Islamist terrorism in Europe caused by the emergence of the Islamic State and other Islamic terrorist factions in the wake of the instability which resulted from the Arab Spring. The figures are androgynous, abstract and devoid of any national characteristics. They could be male or female (or, why not, trans). They could be from anywhere. The only reason you know they’re French and Belgian is the color of the flags. You could do the same cartoon, substituting the flags, for any other terrorist attack elsewhere in Europe or indeed the world. As such, the countries represented are entirely interchangeable with any other. The figures express a sentimental, quiescent sadness, but no revolt, no anger. These are victims who won’t fight back. There is no connection between their grief and its cause. The cartoon doesn’t – Allah forbid – refer to Islam. There is nothing culturally specific to which a politically correct person could object. Even the single tears of each figure are generic.
Compare those figures to the historically rooted, flesh and blood humanity of Rembrant’s “Christ Comforted by the Angel” (1657), which, like Plantu’s cartoon, represents someone being comforted in their sorrow:
You don’t need to be religious to appreciate this drawing nor to understand how radically different it is from Plantu’s work. The subject is Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, where he goes when his soul “is overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of death” (Matthew, 26: 38-39) and asks God to spare him his crucifixion (“may this cup be taken away from me”). In describing his vulnerability in this moment of weakness, the Gospel emphasises Christ’s humanity in a way which is beautifully captured by Rembrant in Christ’s shaded eyes and the angle of his jaw. At the same time as it makes the depth of his emotion vivid, it creates a sense of other, private emotions which can’t be discerned. The angel’s tender embrace folds around Christ so that you can’t see the clear demarcation of his arm.
Where Plantu’s cartoon could be anyone, anywhere, anytime, Rembrant’s drawing captures a freeze frame of Christ’s grief after he’s decided to drink the bitter cup. The drawing expresses the deep anguish, but also allows a certain reserve and interiority which gives you the feeling of a real, layered human being wrestling with the contradictions of his fate. By showing the person of Christ with this frank lucidity, Rembrandt lets the paradoxes of the subject breathe and preserves the mystery of the experience. The generic, sentimental, on-message Plantu cartoon airbrushes any such mystery or paradox away, while blandly avoiding any confrontation with the causes of the terrorist atrocity.
Of course, cartoons and artistic drawings are different genres with different purposes. It would be unfair to criticise Plantu because he isn’t Rembrant; he isn’t trying to be Rembrant. I’m not saying one is better than the other, only using them as illustrations of two ways of representing the world which help us to understand the difference between the traditional, tentative Europe I believe in and the clean break, definite model of Europe which the EU is trying to pursue.
Where Plantu’s cartoon is completely compliant with the purportedly progressive values which the EU claims for itself and communicates those values with unmistakable clarity, Rembrant’s drawing raises uncomfortable theological questions. If Christ is divine, why is he sad at the prospect of accomplishing his God-given destiny? How can he be perfect, as the son of God, and weak and in need of comfort at the same time? Whether you are religious or not, these questions prevent the drawing from being definite in the way Plantu’s cartoon is. The contrast between the two images, between something definite and ideologically appropriate on one hand and something mysterious and theologically problematic on the other, is analogous to that between the light touch, tentative Europe I loved and the new, hyper-rational French Revolution model the EU is pursuing.
Because Rembrant’s drawing can never be definite in the way Plantu’s cartoon is, its mystery will always yield new interpretations. If can therefore form part of a tradition in which the same mystery is interpreted and reinterpreted, a continual reinterpretation which is particularly rich when it works across borders. Because Plantu’s cartoon is so definite, it is the last word on the subject; it can’t be reinterpreted as part of a tradition. Plantu is in many ways the opposite of what T. S. Eliot admires in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919):
No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided: what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for the order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
T. S. Eliot views English literature as part of European literature and European literature as an embodiment of the idea of tradition he articulates. The “existing monuments” can never be definite, can never be the last word, because they are “ever so slightly altered” every time a really new work is created. Tradition, in that sense, advances tentatively yet enduringly in the way the Europe I loved might have, should have. The EU’s Europe, the Europe of Plantu’s cartoon, views the dead poets and artists as benighted and ideologically unsound. Unfortunately, the new, supposedly progressive world it champions is the stuff of nightmares.
Francisco Goya, El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (c 1799)