Monday, 12 December 2011

Europe: One man down

History was made last week as European leaders almost unanimously reached an agreement on a fiscal accord designed to tackle the euro-zone debt crisis. The agreement, to be known as the ‘fiscal compact’, will set a cap of 0.5 per cent of GDP on member states' annual structural deficits, penalise countries whose public deficit goes above 3 per cent of GDP, and require member states to give up to 200 billion Euros to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) as a buffer for debt-stricken euro-zone members. The pact is expected to enter into effect by March 2012 and marks a move towards further European integration.

Despite the significance of the agreement to the future of the European Union (EU), journalists largely overlooked the details of the accord, focussing instead on the political scandal that played out at the summit. In the end, the European Council session in Brussels was not so much about deficits and debt, but drama and disputes, as, for the first time in its history, Britain used its right to veto. The British prime minister, David Cameron, refused to sign the treaty after his proposed safeguards for British interests were rejected by euro-zone leaders.

The three others countries that were initially hesitant about the deal: Hungary, the Czech Republic and Sweden, have now agreed to the pact, leaving Britain the only member state not participating in the inter-governmental treaty.

It is an odd time to be a Brit in Brussels. Upon arriving at my office on Friday morning, a colleague joked that I needed to clear my desk as Britain would soon be out of the EU entirely. Throughout the day, I found myself embarrassed and apologetic for the short-sighted decisions made by a government that I did not vote for. Overnight, I felt that I no longer belonged on the ninth floor of the Charlemagne building, and should instead be making my way to Gare du Midi to catch the next Eurostar back to London.

Mr Cameron’s objectives before entering the summit, were, as I see it, two-fold. Firstly, under pressure from Conservative Party backbenchers, he wanted to utilise the negotiation of a new treaty to gain leverage in bringing powers back from Brussels. Secondly, under pressure from the banks, he wanted to protect the financial services industry from the Financial Transaction Tax proposed by the European Commission. It is no coincidence that the Conservative Party’s funding from the City of London more than quadrupled from when Mr Cameron became Tory leader to when he was elected prime minister.

He failed on both counts: the 26 members of the new treaty, acting together, can easily outvote Britain. Far from protecting British interests, Mr Cameron has guaranteed that the UK will lose its influence at the top decision-making table over issues that will doubtless affect British citizens, including financial market regulation. On Friday, in Brussels, Mr Cameron replaced Mr Berlusconi as the most laughable politician on the continent, and marginalised Britain in the process.

Of course, Britain has always considered itself somewhat outside of the EU, somehow different from other Europeans. This long-standing sense of exceptionalism can be traced right through from the nation’s late arrival to the European Economic Community, 16 years after its advent, to Britain’s more recent non-participation in the single currency and the Schengen Agreement.

This notion of exceptionalism is, in my eyes, inaccurate and egocentric. The Brits tend to forget that their European neighbours, such as, France, Spain and Italy also have strong national identities, none of which are compromised by their support for the European ‘project’.

Euroscepticism is rife in the UK, fuelled by a news industry that regularly prints misinformation, partial truths and sensationalist speculation on EU matters. The press depict Brussels as Europe’s very own Mordor, an evil axis of power, greedily eating away at national sovereignty. Because of this, in the UK, few people understand what the EU does for British citizens. They only hear how much it costs them. The political elites, even those supposedly adopting a pro-European stance, such as the Labour Party or the Liberal Democrats, have done little to address this problem. After all, it is often not in their interests to educate their populace as to the benefits of membership to the European Union: Brussels serves as the perfect scapegoat when things go wrong domestically.

My relationship with European Union is very distinct from that of your average Brit. From a young age, I wanted to know what EU membership meant for the UK. I represented the country at various EU-led youth conferences and participated in the European Youth Parliament. Few young British people do this, and most are misinformed about Europe.

However, if Britain is to effectively ‘renegotiate’ its relationship with the EU, its citizens, including its young people, must be informed as to what Europe does. I am not advocating a propaganda campaign of Soviet proportion, but merely balanced and accessible information on the EU for British citizens. Unfortunately, by the time this is realised, I fear it will already be too late.

Cheerio Europe, it’s been nice knowing you.

By Sonia Jordan