On a day when tradition dictates that my countrymen and I celebrate the disposal of thirteen troublesome colonies (one of our more successful attempts to jettison a colony), ever the contrarian I will post about the continent which houses the site of my birth and in which I continue to live (showing a terrible lack of get-up-and-go in the author).
Europe, as a name at least, has been with us since the sixth century BCE thanks to Anaximander and his pals – though I suspect he may have been a little sketchy about its north-western regions, including the one where I reside. Then again, it may be unwise to underestimate the Greeks (ancient or modern) and they may well have been better informed via networks of trade than I imagine. I am regularly surprised (which probably demonstrate what a slow learner I am) how much that I consider modern is (much like myself) surprisingly ancient. In many ways, as a species we have not progressed very far from the ancient Greek polis – and in some, any progress seems to have been retrograde. I am far from convinced that possession of an iPhone makes us better people than our ancestors – though the technological society which permits its existence does mean we can do far more harm to our supporting biosphere than our antecedents could ever have dreamed (or desired).
I was somewhat disappointed to discover that the naming of the continent seems unrelated to any funny business between Almighty Zeus, in the form of a white bull, and a posh Phoenician bint. Oh well, etymology can’t always come to the aid of the blogger in search of comedy gold.
In contrast to their Plantagenet precursors, many modern Britons view Europe with suspicion – and harbour positive hatred for the European Union and its evil plans to force human rights and low cost mobile phone calls upon us. We folk of the UK wish to retain our age old rights to be tortured and overpay to use Facebook when on holiday – did Magna Carta die in vain? (To paraphrase Anthony Aloysious St John Hancock.)
On the whole, I approve of the ethos behind the whole European project – though frequently despair at its actual implementation. I would far rather European countries indulged their desire for conflict with Johnny Foreigner via petty trade disputes than the laying waste of the continent. As the conference I attended on Monday, and the events of Srebrenica twenty years ago it commemorated, reminds us, a continent free of bloody strife is far from a given: even in our supposedly enlightened times. Sadly, in common with all large human organisations the EU is rife with inefficiency and bureaucracy and tends to attract those desirous of personal power and gain rather than with a genuine interest in improving the lot of its stakeholders (i.e. the rest of us). This seems to be a problem which has been with us since not long after Europe was named (and perhaps even before, my Akkadian history is a little rusty) without a decent solution being implemented.
I believe without the EU we would have to invent something similar. So many things today require transnational solutions, whether it be efficient delivery of low cost energy or the preservation of fishing stocks (to name but two). Slow as the EU can be, it still manages to achieve rather more than the United Nations – albeit in a more modest geographical realm and much of it fairly pointless. However, in a couple of years we could be out. I have no idea whether the EU is a net benefit to the UK or not, even on a purely financial basis – and I’m pretty convinced that no-one else does either. I’m fairly sure that leaving will prove rather expensive and disruptive in the short term, but have no doubt the UK – or the bits of it that remain attached (let’s just call them Greater London) – will continue, whichever way the referendum goes.
The one area in with I think the EU has gone badly awry is with the introduction and subsequent management of the Euro. Don’t get me wrong, I find it dreadfully convenient when crossing the Channel or Irish Sea for either business or pleasure, but I’m not sure that this modest gain at the expense of Travelex and its ilk is really worth the rather serious costs. I am reminded of A Third, the play I saw on Sunday evening, in which a couple want to be the sort of people who would enjoy a threesome and so act this out in the hope that this will make it true. I feel Europe wanted to be the sort of place which enjoyed the benefits of a single currency, and so introduced one in the hope that acting out their desires would similarly make them a reality. However, for a single currency – like a threesome – to work, the underlying fundamentals of the relationship have to be right – and this has been rather neglected. In both the play and the continent, a bunch of rules were established before you were allowed to join in and then the scope of the activities grew and the rules were ‘adjusted’. My reading of the play was that the original relationship was destroyed: we shall have to wait and see what happens to the EU. I must admit that when watching the play, I did not think “gosh, this is an analogy for the Euro” – this rather dim epiphany came later (and aren’t we all glad that it did?).
I am far from convinced that a single currency makes sense for the UK (let alone the whole continent), and through my lifetime the pound which is run for the benefit of London (or so it has seemed to me) has been unhelpful for regions which are distant geographically and structurally from this single, dominant centre. The same story has played out in Europe, where countries with markedly different economies from the dominant German centre have lost control of a critical economic lever (something which our government seems determined to do on its own with several of its levers) and suffered as a result. Frankly, the Germans should have seen this coming given their own challenges (and costs) bringing the country together under the Deutschmark following reunification. Trying to do the same thing for an entire continent was always going to be problematic, though initially disguised by the apparent growth years at the start of the millenium. As a result, my sympathy for the Hun is rather limited.
As I write this, I am starting to believe that I must be quite a decent economist – drawing lessons from both German unification and a play about increasing the team size for bedroom games. Perhaps this is what is lacking in the training of modern economists – they need a little more history and drama in their intellectual diet. Once again the Arts and Humanities prove their value: if only more people were paying attention. Forget PPE, HDE should be the future educational choice for those seeing political advancement. I could be persuaded to teach a module or two – let’s face it, my teaching is unlikely to create a worse shambles than the current Greek and EU leadership have achieved. Of course, it is probably just this sort of self-delusion which has brought the world to the plight it is suffering today – though, to be fair to the author, he is only writing about it in a thinly-read blog rather than trying to inflict it on a continent of half-a billion people.