From Antarctica to the EU and Iran, former UK Ambassador Charles Crawford says much can be learnt from looking to the past
The only advantage of getting old and cranky (like me) is that you see things on a bigger scale. Today’s hubbub of daily politics and #fakenews and live-streamed droll embarrassments makes measured reflection and judgement next to impossible.
Still, after you’ve made your weary way around planet earth for some six decades, you start to grasp that beneath the torrent of events, there lie deep trends and rhythms. Take, for example, those YouTube videos of the changing map of Europe. You watch the ebb and flow over a thousand years or more of kingdoms, fiefdoms, principalities, empires and latterly sovereign states. It’s especially striking that back in the 1300s Bosnia makes a fleeting appearance as a kingdom before it disappears from the map. It pops up again in the 1990s, some 600 years later. Does that not say something profound about the logic of organising human affairs in that hilly corner of Europe? Yes. But what?
Take climate change instead. The greatest growth of life on earth was brought about by the Cambrian Explosion some 541 million years ago. CO2 levels in the atmosphere then were orders of magnitude higher than they are now. What we now call the Antarctic was covered in lush forests, teeming with animal life. Now it’s a vast ice-desert. Might a lot more human-produced CO2 in the air help #MAGA (Make Antarctica Great Again)? What if more CO2 has bad consequences for us humans over 50 years but quite good consequences over the following 400 years? Over what timescale to measure success or failure? And how to know what timescale you’re in fact operating in?
Thus Brexit. The storming glorious election win of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party means that the UK will now leave the European Union, the first country to do so since the European integration project was started after World War II.
For most of my lifetime the EU cheerily presented itself as a bicycle: it had to keep moving forward lest it stop and topple over.
Generations of diplomats happily bickered over what ‘forward’ meant. It definitely meant More EU: the goal of ‘an ever closer union’ was written into EU treaty law. Was More EU achieved by Deeper EU, or Wider EU, or both? In any case, More EU surely means Less Member State. And if you’re a member state voter, you start to wonder what ‘ever closer union’ means for your own country and your identity.
Veteran Diplomat readers may recall my article here back in 2015 on The Physics of Diplomacy:
The European Union is the classic example of diplomatic Mass growing at the expense of Velocity. Almost everything about the European Union is now at odds with the dynamic scary world we live in. The fat salaries and pensions presiding over impenetrable procedures and untransparent decisions. The constant overriding of voters’ opinions. Swamps of process guarded by a European elite who, having blundered in creating the Eurozone on unsound foundations, now demand even more centralised power over voters and their money.
Such dysfunctionality creates a crisis of Legitimacy. Greeceis the most acute example catching the headlines, but other good ones are bubbling along. Neither Left nor Right take comfort from this grim situation: neither know what to do about it. Does anyone in Whitehall or Brussels or Washington have a plan for a radical but workable alternatives when existing arrangements abruptly crash?
Seems not. The bigger point here is that the logic that created the European Economic Community, and in due course the European Union, may have run its course. Yes, it’s good that we EU Europeans have had the benefit of decades of compounding economic growth in the absence of all those dreary wars that wrecked the continent for hundreds of years. It does not follow that only the European Union in its current form delivers that.
Why not (say) have several smaller European Unions that bring together countries with similar histories and traditions: a Northern Union for Germany/Austriaand the Nordics, a Southern Union for France/Italyand the Club Meds, and maybe an Eastern Union for Polandand other former communist countries including Ukraine? These different Unions would solemnly promise not to fight each other and trade fairly. They could work up intergovernmental and other shared arrangements (eg for mobile phones or air services) that suited their own willingness to integrate. They each could enlarge to bring in new members at their pace and on their conditions.
Something like that would be far more flexible and much closer to the taxpayers who fund it than today’s grand but ponderous and hideously complicated one-size-fits-all regime based in Brussels. But how to get there from here without a ghastly if not ruinous crash first? Might Brexit make that more likely?
My sense is that it’s now not about Wider or Deeper EU. It’s about Much-Too-Tall-And-Top-Heavy EU.
Take the case of Catalan separatist leader Oriol Junqueras, given a severe jail sentence in Spainfor promoting Catalonia’s independence. The European Court of Justice has ruled that he should not be in prison as he enjoys immunity as a member of the European Parliament. Spaniards who want to keep their country united may well raise an eyebrow at the idea that anyone who tries to break up Spain can do so while sitting plumply at their expense in an EU institution they barely respect. Was THIS what we signed up to?
Likewise Poland, where the Law and Justice government with its whopping election mandates keeps battling with Brussels over its plans to change the way the Polish judiciary operates. Or Hungary, where the Orban leadership is in constant disagreement with EU HQ on many migration and wider rule of law issues.
The common theme here is what my 1970s’ Jurisprudence degree course called the hierarchy of norms. Every legal order has an ultimate source of authority from which every law and regulation emerges. Back in 1973 in a famous English court case over the right to use the word champagne, the then Master of the Rolls Lord Denning gave a famous judgement:
The Treaty [under which the UK joined the European Community] does not touch any of the matters which concern solely the mainland of England and the people in it. These are still governed by English law. But when we come to matters with a European element, the Treaty is like an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and up the rivers. It cannot be held back.
In cases like this across European Community members the formal supremacy of EU law over national law was imposed. Are we now, almost 50 years later, seeing that tide finally start to ebb? It looks inevitable that sooner or later, for reasons of national security or identity, some national courts will decide that national law trumps EU law even in areas of ‘EU competency.’ And the current EU hierarchy of norms will risk abrupt collapse.
So much for Europe. As I write, Twitter is shrilling over the vivid demise in Iraq of Iranian terrorist-in-chief Qassem Suleimani. “Why o why”, intone the prim commentators, “did Washington err from the path of negotiating with Iran and risking a new war?”
This sort of talk completely misses the key point, namely that blowing up Suleimani after his many attacks on USpeople and interests is itself the next move in the decades-long US/Iran negotiation. And within that negotiation the Iran regime’s sustained suppression of its own people’s wellbeing plays a key part. Islamist fanatics have now run Iran for a full five decades. Over that long period, they have achieved a derisory rise in Iranian living standards, from some $2,000 GNI per capita to less than $6,000 per capita now. By contrast in just the 30 years since communism fell and normal democratic market forces came back in, Poles have raced from $4,000 to $14,000 GNI per capita.
That Iranian Revolution. Glorious success? Or pathetic failure? When might we know for sure?