PM Cameron tried hard to resolve European Union issues, but failed | analysis | Hindustan Times
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PM Cameron tried hard to resolve European Union issues, but failed

A series of inter-related crises hit the EU: the global financial crisis which exposed the fiscal mismanagement of the southern European states, state collapse in the Middle East and the Russian takeover of eastern Ukraine showed the EU was also a system, as Henry Kissinger noted, that had no means to defend itself.

Britain EU Referendum Updated: Jun 25, 2016 01:09 IST
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha walk back into 10 Downing Street after he spoke about Britain voting to leave the European Union, in London on Friday.
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha walk back into 10 Downing Street after he spoke about Britain voting to leave the European Union, in London on Friday.(Reuters)

The European “experiment” is a phrase often used to describe the European Union. In reality, nobody in Brussels or most European capitals actually thought it was anything other than grounded reality.

Until the United Kingdom, the second largest European economy and its third largest in population, voted to leave the EU. The EU was a remarkable idea. It sought to develop a post-modern polity designed to end centuries of nationalist rivalry that had led, among other things, to two World Wars.

The radical solution of Jean Monnet and other European leaders was to end sovereignty. Governments would deliberately interfere in each other’s affairs. Decision-making would be wholly transparent and cross-border.

With the creation of the euro, the Schengen visa and the slow expansion of the authority of the European Parliament and Commission, the term “experiment” began sounding self-deprecating.

But a series of inter-related crises hit the EU: the global financial crisis which exposed the fiscal mismanagement of the southern European states, state collapse in the Middle East and the Russian takeover of eastern Ukraine showed the EU was also a system, as Henry Kissinger noted, that had no means to defend itself.

However, there was a much more insidious problem buried within the EU. The mish-mash of national and pan-national structures plus the sheer number of countries involved made it a hard sell publicly. Europe’s elite found it easier to push for union without legitimising it through the ballot box.

Read | Brexit: If democracy has to survive, the elites have to regain their credibility

Novelty face masks including one of British Prime Minister David Cameron are displayed for sale on a street vendor's stall in London on Friday. (AFP)

For example, this Thursday was the first time the UK had ever put its EU relationship to the vote, despite repeated promises to do so going back decades.

This lack of legitimacy proved an Achilles heel when the European economy began to stagnate and required major structural surgery. Economic reforms require strong leadership and oodles of political legitimacy. Brussels, almost by design, had none of the above. EU Commissioners were grey, invisible technocrats who were good at process and paperwork but zero in winning over popular opinion.

The external shocks to the EU only exposed deeper problems already existing within the European economy, problems Brussels had no means to address and even national governments found difficult to tackle.

The net result has been economic stagnation, an erosion of working class incomes, an end to social mobility and, finally, a loss of faith in Europe’s political leadership. Inevitably, insurgent political movements began to gain ground: Nigel Farage in Britain, Gert Wilders in Belgium, Marine Le Pen in France and so on.

Outgoing PM David Cameron, swayed perhaps by the belief that stolid British voters would not defy the London establishment, tried to solve the twin problems of legitimacy and insurgency with a referendum. He failed spectacularly.

Europe’s political rebels now smell blood. Brussels’ Eurocrats can only smell fear.

Read | As Cameron signs off with Brexit, Boris Johnson tipped to be the next UK PM