For the longest time it seemed as if we would be trapped forever in a Groundhog Day nightmare in which the “deal” at the European summit would never emerge, David Cameron would never come home, and the British electorate would become so bored that we would sink into bottomless indifference.
“How likely is it that this institutional uselessness in the face of a human disaster, could transform itself into a slickly colluding, pre-scripted, universally agreed plot to rescue the British Prime Minister from a corner into which he had voluntarily painted himself?”
It is characteristic of our historic relationship with the EU that no one could be sure whether any of this was actually happening: was there really a knife edge, cliff-hanging drama playing itself out in Brussels with threats and counter-threats, promises made and then broken, offers of concessions followed by threats and refusals? Or was this all a choreographed charade in which the final outcome was agreed long ago?
So accustomed are we to relations with the EU being based on systematic deceit (especially when there is a referendum to hand), that it is hard to trust one’s grip on reality. Could all of these heads of democratically elected governments really be conspiring against all their populations to perpetrate a lie: that the UK’s membership would be thrown into serious doubt by a failure to produce a piece of paper which Mr Cameron could wave in the air?
In order to believe that, you must assume that the EU is a more consistent, well-organised and cleverly orchestrated outfit than it clearly is. I admit that I was inclined to accept the grand conspiracy view myself until the last few days, but I am now convinced that the events of this weekend were not (entirely) a cooked-up melodrama. This was on the edge of a genuine shambles, even though it was inevitable that Mr Cameron would get his piece of paper in the end.
We are talking, after all, about an international organisation which managed to turn a transitory migration crisis into a global tragedy through criminal incompetence and an abysmal failure to reach any sort of mutual agreement. How likely is it that this institutional uselessness in the face of a human disaster, could transform itself into a slickly colluding, pre-scripted, universally agreed plot to rescue the British Prime Minister from a corner into which he had voluntarily painted himself?
Seriously – how likely was that? No, this was close to an actual bloody mess from which nobody much is going to emerge with great honour. That conclusion became unavoidable when Greece threatened to veto the entire summit – including the UK “deal” – if the EU did not abandon its proposal to close the Greek border thereby turning the entire country into a giant refugee camp. This perfectly understandable fit of rage from Greece was surely not part of anybody’s plan.
If there ever was an agreed script between, say, the UK, Germany and France, it was strained to the limit. And the reason for that goes to the heart of what is fatally wrong with the EU itself and why the British “renegotiation” has been a missed opportunity for reform of the whole enterprise. The failure of reasoning was clear when the heads of government persisted in their belief that the UK’s demands were a side issue to the real problem facing the EU – which was migration. Mr Cameron and his piffling complaints were pushed aside on Thursday to make way for a marathon night of discussion on the unmanageable numbers of desperate people who were arriving at whatever border they could find their way through. This, it was agreed, was the real existential threat to the EU.
But, in truth, the two issues are intertwined. Britain is insisting (or should be insisting) that it has the right to control its own borders and to determine the conditions under which migrants may participate in its labour market. And that is precisely the demand that other EU states are (or should be) making if there is to be any resolution of the immigration crisis.
It is the EU’s insistence that the migration policy must be universally agreed (except, of course, when Germany announces a unilateral decision to accept unlimited numbers) which has made it impossible to handle the influx in any rational, coordinated way. The very thing that is at issue with the UK should be seen as central to the much larger problem: so long as the EU has uncontrolled, unmonitored movement within its internal borders, its external borders will be impossible to police effectively. What is threatening to create an irreparable split between the eastern member states and the richer western ones is just this question of individual nation states being allowed to set their own immigration limits.
“The EU is obsessed with the risk of “contagion”, by which it means a dangerous outbreak of freedom”
It is almost impossible to overestimate the damage that has been done by the combined effects of the EU’s purblind insistence on its own dogmatic principle of ever-closer-union, and its hopeless incompetence at producing workable agreements. Into the vacuum left by its failures has swept Vladimir Putin, who is now proceeding to chase what remains of Syria’s population into the EU – which he has never forgiven for transgressing Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Putin takes his revenge on the former Warsaw Pact countries which cleave ever more fiercely to the West for protection. Ironically, it is just this threat from the new imperial Russia which Europhiles will use as a justification for remaining in the EU. The world looks more threatening now than at any moment since the Cold War ended, even without taking Isil terrorism into account.
That fact will be used to frighten people into the Remain camp: better to stay in an unsatisfactory fellowship than to be isolated. But in dangerous, unpredictable times, what is needed is flexibility, not rigidity. By refusing to bend on its sacred founding premises, Europe does not become stronger: it becomes more brittle and breakable. If ever there was a moment to allow diversity and adaptation to new circumstances, this is it. It is simply absurd to claim that cooperation over security would be impossible if we voted to leave: it is in everyone’s interest to maintain it.
But Mr Cameron has his “deal”. And he presents it as a triumph as he made clear he always intended to do. Much of his pitch relies, as was expected, on Britain being able to lead the whole organisation on to further reform. There will be a lot more of this supposedly frank talk about how we can now help to resolve the difficulties and cope with the challenges that the EU faces… blah-blah. The suggestion will be reiterated over and over again that there is a lot of reforming still to be done and that Britain – being the mature, stable democracy that it is – can help the European institutions through this difficult time.
In fact, if the last year has shown us anything it is that the EU is unreformable. It has still not formulated any practical solution to the migrant crisis which is threatening to undermine its authority in the Eastern member states. It was ruthlessly autocratic in its treatment of Greece’s economic collapse, which has earned it the permanent distrust of that exhausted country (and contributed to its government’s fury over the threat of closing its borders). Some of us had hoped that the UK renegotiation would provide an opportunity to discuss the possibility of bringing the whole project into the 21st century: for adapting to circumstances which are very different from the ones in which the original union was born. But that was never going to happen.
Instead the EU is obsessed with the risk of “contagion”, by which it means a dangerous outbreak of freedom. If the UK gets special concessions, what’s to stop other member states getting ideas of their own about God knows what? Before you know it, democratically elected governments might have some real power, and then where would we be?