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A couple of days ago a tiny electrical shiver went through my body, as I read the latest installment of The Orwell Prize – an online blog that releases the diary of George Orwell, entry by entry, 70 years to the day after each was written.
The entry date was 22nd June 1941. Operation Barbarossa and the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union – perhaps, in scale and ambition, the most extraordinary military venture in history (I was disappointed to find that this place up in Glasgow wasn’t a bizarre take on the themed restaurant line, with ‘Army Group Centre Nachos’ (great for sharing), ‘Ribs with Vernichtungskrieg sticky sauce’ and maybe some ‘Venison with Kessel Reduction’).
This clash between two utopianist totalitarian states/systems was the signal event in the Second World War, and arguably the 20th Century. Speaking as an Englishman, thinking back to this ghastly adventure reinforces my utter distaste for utopian schemes that set out to design humanity for a greater good that is not necessarily in keeping with the monkeysized ways and contradictions of real humans.
This, if you haven’t already realised, brings me neatly onto the European Union. I am – let me make this very clear – a supporter of the EU. It brought peace to a fractured continent, and its common market allowed Europe to punch its considerable weight on some aspects of the world stage. These are good things that any amount of squabbling or dysfunction cannot negate.
However, you may have noticed that there are several problems with this little project, centred upon the euro, and the sovereign debt crisis that has threatened the financial viability of several members.
I will leave aside a more detailed analysis of what has gone wrong and where, for the sake of making one clear and overwhelming point.
The European project has become something bigger than itself – a form of utopian scheme (however well-intentioned, although this is itself up for debate) where the triumph of The Project trumps not only obstacles and arguments, but monkeysized human nature itself.
The euro was conceived as part of the wider integration project, despite the obvious point that currency union tends to rely rather heavily on political union, and that a Frankfurt-based interest rate (among other things) might not necessarily be the healthiest step forward for other economies on the fringe of the currency union area. All it needed was something of a crisis to bring these tensions out.
Well, we’ve certainly got that crisis, and what it shows is not that pretty. The euro has evidently done some good, but also harm: in the south the low interest rates seem to have funded a spending boom; in Ireland and Spain, they funded unsustainable and massive property booms. The euro magnified inequalities in productivity and competitiveness (that the politicians failed to implement through their irresponsible failure to reform or take the Lisbon Agenda seriously) and this led to many of the imbalances within the eurozone that were then exposed by the wider financial crisis and the increasing evidence that Germany is no longer an uncomplaining engine but a ‘normal’ country that through its sheer power harms the others when pursuing its interests.
The big trouble is that this has not led to a rush to fix things, but to push other agendas – whether local and political, or wider and ideological. For many, they follow the reasoning that currency union needs political union, and call for more Europe, more union. This ignores the simple fact that the political union that they call for is near impossible – and the massive emerging (Westphalian?) gaps between the EU’s states are ample evidence of this.
Utopian empires are projects that never succeed. The tragedy here is that many with their hands on the levers of power are treating this crisis as evidence that their utopia needs a bigger gulag, stricter 5 year plans and drabber dungarees. They are ignoring the evidence – like the Soviet party member trying to get hold of a decent washing machine – that what they have in front of them is evidence that it doesn’t work.
It doesn’t work because people cannot be designed like systems on a scrap of paper. The fact that they are overgrown monkeys, in different political systems built over time by communities of overgrown monkeys, means that they cannot be slotted into whatever Utopian system happens to sound good (and by definition many of these do sound good).
The EU is failing because it is utopian and no longer pragmatic; it is failing because Europeans are monkeysized.
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