Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Where there's a Will...

I'm often quite a fan of Will Hutton - the man makes an honest attempt to do joined up thinking about big issues without being either overly conventional or deliberately contrarian, and he writes well. Everyone, for example, should check out his book on China - The Writing on the Wall. (A lot's been made about the supposedly Western-centric nature of his focus on "enlightenment institutions", but I'm not really seeing it myself. As far as I can tell, he's happy with any institutions that would allow for more transparency and certainty of economic and political action in China. Whether they come couched in quotes from Voltaire and Hume is not really the issue.)

That said, there is a sort of men-in-suits-power-politics smugness to the man that occassionally gets right up my scruffy little student nose. Of course he'd probably be delighted about this, since it puts him right up there with J K Galbraith and John Maynard Keynes himself in his whole "us experts are here to provide enlightened government for you little folk" approach. They're not necessarily worng, but it can still make you want to punch them.

Anyway, this is all a preamble to talking about his recent piece where he whinges on about how those dreadful benighted oiks in Ireland have been lead astray by the forces of darkness and set the course of human progress an incalculable amount by voting no to the Lisbon treaty:

Eurosceptics celebrate a triumph of the little people against the Euro juggernaut. Ireland's 'no' vote against the treaty on the European constitution is, in such minds, the brave assertion of democracy against bureaucracy. The European elite in Brussels, with its dark plans to hobble Europeans everywhere, deserves a good kicking for producing an unloved, incomprehensible set of reforms. It has got it. Ireland has stood up for Europe.

This is nonsense from top to bottom, a farrago of lies and disinformation. The European Union is a painfully constructed and fragile skein of compromises that allows 27 democratic states on our shared continent to come together and drive forward areas of common interest to further their citizens' well-being. The elite that plots this is a nonexistent phantom invented by populist demagogues. The beleaguered, unloved treaty would have improved Europe's effectiveness and tried to address its much talked about democratic weaknesses.

The reality is that Ireland's 'no' voters have trashed an EU that is precious but weak. Most 'no' voters, grabbing on to the worst fear rather than reasoned fact, have unknowingly set in train a political dynamic that, unless carefully handled, could lead not just to Ireland but Britain leaving the EU. Everybody will be the poorer.

And so on.

What annoys me about this isn't so much that I think he's wrong about Europe, as that he moves so quickly to dismiss all the popular concerns about it as just so much parochial piffle. Populist phantom? Really? I mean, if there really was absolutely elite bureaucracy handing out favours to its mates in the European Parliament, that'd make the institution pretty much a unique case in the history of government.

Doubtless I sound like a dreadful hick, but the EU looks to me to be encouraging as much shameless venality as the average opaque-institution-in-a-position-to-hand-out-big-favours. Just today Europe's leading IP experts have sent a joint letter to Barroso telling him to stop handing out special favours to big music at the expense of economic efficiency and the general public good, so at least on the things I know about, it looks like business as usual.

Those who really want European integration to succeed need to get started on making it more accountable, transparent and democratic, instead of just sitting there whinging about how all the little people don't know what's good for them.


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