By Petros Fassoulas
Perhaps the flightless African bird does not deserve the reputation it has acquired but in terms of symbolism at least the British government’s reaction to the eurozone crisis resembles a lot the ostrich’s alleged tendency to bury its head in the ground when confronted with danger.
Because there is no other way one can describe how Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne have reacted as financial and stock markets seem to implode around them. Even though they have acknowledged the severity of the situation, even though they have admitted that what happens in the eurozone has a direct impact on the UK economy, even though they have gone as far as encouraging their EU partners to adopt the measures necessary to contain the crisis, they have declared, with immense but ill-founded pride, that they are keeping themselves, and the country, away from the decision-making process that aims to resolve the present crisis and put in place the mechanisms that will strengthen the eurozone and safeguard the European economy.
This is where the truly dangerous surrender of national sovereignty lies. When the growth of the British economy depends to such a big degree to the well-being of the eurozone, when billions are wiped off the value of British assets in the London Stock Exchange because of the uncertainty the debt crisis has caused in the financial markets, the British government cannot afford to just stand by idly, inviting others to make decisions that affect the country so profoundly. Whether Mr Cameron and his eurosceptic backbenchers like it or not, the UK is by default part of the eurozone. The British economy is integrated with those of our European partners through the Single Market. The ability of our export sector to generate growth at home depends on the ability of our European partners to purchase our goods and services. The European financial services sector, with London at its heart, is interconnected through a complex web that links the banks and other financial institutions with something that resembles a stranglehold. Even the cost of our holidays depends on economic conditions in the rest of Europe. Sticking our heads in the ground, like senior Conservatives – in and outside the government – are calling for, pretending that it is up to ‘those Europeans’ to sort this one out, like we have nothing to do with it, is frankly a clear case of biting one’s nose to spite one’s face.
But there is a pattern in their madness. Their intention is to present the process of European integration as a speeding train, one that charges towards a certain direction, a train that the UK cannot and should not board. They in fact prefer to encourage members of the eurozone to move forward towards closer economic and fiscal union in the belief that the British electorate will be put off once and for all by the prospect of the European project. Then the government will pursue some kind of marginal role at the periphery of the EU, limited on trade and a couple of other things but staying clear of anything as big as economic, monetary and fiscal union. In effect create a two-speed Europe and relegate Britain to the second tier.
Those two Europes that the Conservatives envision are the Eurozone on one side and the non-Eurozone EU member states on the other. But of the 10 remaining EU countries that have not joined the single currency yet only the UK and Denmark have an opt-out. All the other member states have declared their wish to eventually join (once they are ready). Even Denmark is in a process of revisiting its opt outs, including euro membership. So sooner than later the UK will find itself all alone, at the outer rim of the EU, a small island, adrift in the Atlantic, squeezed between two global currencies, the dollar and the euro (not to mention the renminbi). Alienated, without a seat around the table, unable to influence the decisions that affect its economy.
There were two Europes before, during the days when the European Economic Community (that eventually became the European Union) co-existed with the European Free Trade Association. What happened then is what will happen with this two-speed Europe. EFTA states, including the UK, quickly realised which was the organisation worth belonging to and eventually drifted into it, in many cases too late to have any influence in the formation of its fundamental structures. What is left of EFTA these days is a tiny grouping, made up of Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and in some way and form Switzerland. These remaining EFTA states, reluctant to join the EU but keen to participate in the Single Market, Schengen and other EU policies have to abide to the rules decided by EU member states without having a say in the way those rules are agreed and adopted (while at the same time contributing to the EU budget). Is this the fate the UK would like to reserve for itself? Is this the future the current government is happy to relegate the UK to? One of marginalised insignificance on the sidelines, having to accept the consequences of decisions that affect us but are taken without us?
The eurozone will survive and will continue its successful course through history. Its leaders have demonstrated their commitment and they will do whatever it takes, albeit at a pace different to that the markets, the press and many ambitious integrationists (like yours truly) might desire. It will survive because it possesses the necessary strength, its collective economic fundamentals are solid, it enjoys the confidence of world powers like the US and China and it has at its heart some of the most dynamic and global economies in the world. The question is whether the UK will be part of it or not.
Historians will one day look at what took place at this particular moment of European history. Whether they will acknowledge the UK as a strong and confident nation, at the heart of decisions that formed the future of our continent (and the world) or as a nation that turned inwards, closed itself up and resigned itself to a life of irrelevance in the sidelines will depend on what role Cameron and Co will decide to play from now on. Will they put their chips down, sit around the table and have a say in the hand the EU will play? Or will they leave through the back door while the rest of Europe moves forward?
I guess we will know soon.
Author : European Movement UK