- Friday, 03 February 2006
Are we seeking our own Eurovision?
Could it be we are all desperately seeking are own vision of Europe? To the British, Brussels has become a figure of hate, for the Germans, a place to redeem themselves. However, for the French, a chance to relieve its Napoleonic dreams, while for the new member states, an opportunity to grow up.
Whatever your dream or nightmare, Brussels has always been a battlefield where Europe’s powers determine the future. Unlike in the past, confrontations between nations took place on the battlefields that surround Brussels, but we are more civilized today? The battles take place in the committee rooms of Brussels European Quarter. Unlike other capitals of major powers, the architecture tends to be understated and business like, giving little inkling of the major decisions being made in these modest buildings.
Recently, I was one of the delegates, at a conference, intent on mapping out this undiscovered country that is Europe, with fellow delegates from member states, representing business, media, politics and pressure groups. Our Euro skeptic loves to depict Brussels as place for sumptuous dining, which is both right and wrong. Unlike, London or Paris you can eat well in family friendly restaurants, which do not have the pretensions or prices back home. Instead, you feel you have been invited to someone’s home for dinner. In fact, we did our best work between our seminars breakfasting, lunching, drinking tea and supper-ing discussing the issues raised. However, much to the annoyance of the French no doubt, our lingua franca was English, with occasional dips into German, to clarify some points. In fact, I was told a new dialect of English has developed in Belgium called ‘Brussels English’. It is not surprising when both French and German use the same words as English for ‘safety’ and ‘security’.
It was interesting to discover each other’s views and the spin portrayed by each country’s media. At one dinner, we decided over pink champagne and rack of lamb to tackle the issue of immigration. Our discussions revealed there are many insights to the issue.
Take immigration, Greece is a gateway for immigrants crossing the Aegean from Turkey on their way to Western Europe. It is causing problems throughout society, noted Onassis, himself an immigrant from India and major Greek property developer. Even the Greek mafia is complaining that Kurdish and Albanian gangs are leaving no room for an honest Greek crook to make a dishonest living.
Because Britain opened its borders to workers from the new member states, we have had scare stories, about Polish Plumbers overrunning England. Yet, we don’t hear the other side, Loki, an Estonian economist pointed out there are whole districts in his country where only children and pensioners can be seen, every one else has dashed to earn money in the West. This has made the new member states worried about the impact such depopulation is having on this part of Europe’s potential future prosperity.
In Germany, the problems they are more concerned with their Turkish workers who are increasingly failing to integrate with the rest of German society. Angela, a tall blond snappily dressed German lobbyist observed that so-called German-Turks, now live, work, play and pray in Turkish ghettos of many German cities without speaking or hearing a word of German. Many Germans fear that as in Britain they will become a minority in their own towns, particularly since immigrants tend to have larger families than Germans. Even the Turkish government has expressed concern that these ghettos are creating extremism that is causing trouble back in the home country.
For Brussels, immigration has added to the tasks that our leaders have had placed on them. A new series of European agencies have been set to aid states in their tasks. One of them is Eurodac an EU agency that collects and provides fingerprint data on everyone fingerprinted in Europe. It has helped immigration services to speed up the checking of illegal aliens and asylum seekers as they make their way across Europe. Already, the system has been used to cut down on multiple applications by migrants as they shop around for a country to settle in, and it has helped member states to detect 39,550 illegal immigrants in 2004 alone, noted Kurt a Commission civil servant. The success of Eurodac has been much to the annoyance of Britain’s Euro sceptical press.
At lunch the following day, in a beautiful art nouveau restaurant we discussed further European enlargement, and this brought up, inevitably, the issues of Turkey, the Balkans and the big question of when will Russia make its application to join. As for Turkey joining, the debate over red wine and duck a la orange got very heated. Both the Germans and French, at the lunch, were strongly opposed to the idea. Francois, representing French farmers, feared that French farmers would be undercut by cheap Turkish food imports, and that CAP payments to farmers in France would have to be slashed, forcing more farmers to leave the land.
Angela pointed out that most German people were disappointed with enlargement for it had made the task of rebuilding eastern Germany more difficult and had taken jobs away from many towns as investors went shopping for the best tax breaks and most lax labour laws. The last thing that both the Finns and the Baltic States journalists wanted was Russia joining at any price. However, we all thought the prospect of Russia joining was more likely to take place sooner than Turkey’s accession, because under Putin Russia has progressed faster in a few years than had Turkey.
As for the prospect of letting in more Balkan states was viewed by all with trepidation, to say the least. Onassis greeted such a prospect with some fear, but from the Greek point of view, it was too dangerous for Europe for this potential powder keg to be ignored. Europe’s future stability in this region was under threat, if Brussels failed to intervene. Kurt pointed out the last thing Europe needed was the further breakup of old Yugoslavia, for apart from the smuggling of people, cigarette and drugs, there was little going for the failing economies of Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro. Brussels is holding out the carrot of future accession to the EU to these banana republics, but only if they agree to cooperate and put their past behind them, Kurt revealed.
During the coffee, we got on to discussing Turkey, following on at a seminar earlier that day, when we had questioned various experts on the topic. This included a very slick Turkish lobbyist, who would not look out of place as a dodgy second hand car salesman. Despite this handicap, Osman laid it out bluntly, yes, Turkey desperately needs to join the EU if it is going to continue to develop and not stagnate like its neighbours to the east. Europe needs Turkey, yes for all the usual political and economic reasons. Also in these times of rising fuel prices, it is important that Russia does not have total control of the pipelines that supply the European Union with the oil and gas fields to the east like Azerbaijan and the Gulf. Turkey provides such an alternative secure transit route. Onassis, pointed out, though he agrees with these geo-political concerns, there is still much Turkey has to do to win significant European public support for these issues including the treatment of minorities and women before Ankara will realise its ambition of full membership of the EU. (For more on Turkey).
The following day, we watched Merkel make her first overseas visit as Chancellor to Europe’s Capital. Onassis noted that as soon as an EU leader is elected, he or she, dashes off to Brussels to pay homage. Certainly, the German Chancellors points made about the Budget and the CAP made for heated debate, at supper later that night. One thing, we concluded from her speech that it could be ‘spring time for Germany’ after the recent years of economic depression. Afterwards we dashed through the snow to a nearby restaurant to have a delicious Flemish meat pie washed down with beer. Oddly enough, despite Tony Blair’s retirement plans, all agreed that despite the opposition, he had won his case about the need of reform of the Budget and Common Agricultural Policy, if Europe was going to prove more relevant and effective in meeting its citizen’s needs. In fact, the people at the table regarded the vote against the European Treaty in France and Holland as a non-event. Most viewed it as a personal defeat for the deeply unpopular President Chirac, and an end to French dreams of European leadership. This was because the political map of Europe had changed and Paris could no longer blackmail Berlin over its past, noted Loki.
Common Agricultural Policy
During the sweet course, our discussion turned to agriculture. Francis a slim French regional politician was all full of how important it was to keep the status quo, in order to protect French food and wine interest and the need to protect Europe’s poor defenseless farmers. However, Kurt revealed that the original purpose of common agriculture policy was to help the poor peasant farmer after the war; the trouble was it no longer was doing this. In 2003, the richest 6.5 per cent of European farmers claimed 55 per cent of total CAP subsidies. Amongst, the people benefiting the most from the CAP cheques are some of Europe’s richest people and firms, including a whole bunch of European aristocrats, cabinet members, wealthy businessmen who have little to do with farming from all over Europe. No, wonder the authorities have shown little interest in the reform of the budget and the CAP, which despite its claims it is doing little to help the poor peasant farms that continue to disappear each year at an alarming rate.
As for claims about how vital the CAP was in protecting the quality of French food and wine, much of French agriculture, like market gardening, does not receive subsidies. As for the French wine industry, despite the massive subsidies, it has continued to produce every year tankers full of undrinkable wine that even the French decline to drink; and even Francis had to agree with the rest of our group.
No, the CAP, apart from being a European social security system for the rich, plays another vital role for France, as a rebate on its contributions to the budget. To many French politicians it is also seen a form of reparations paid by Germany for the Second World War, even Germany thinks it is time for this to end, as it is not only unfair on Berlin but also on the rest of Europe, that is funding France’s nice little earner.
For the new member states, the budget is vital in providing the investment needed to transform their economies from basket cases to prosperous ones, like Ireland and Spain. It is not surprising that many EU members were worried about any potential threats to their economic future. For Britain, the cuts agreed on, were cuts in projected growth of the rebate to Britain. Not, as Britain’s euro sceptical media kept insisting on real cuts in the existing budget. Nor the other red herring about the EU accounts not being ‘signed off’ again. What they forgot to say there is little the EU can do about it when member states governments’ spend 85% of its budget. As Loki pointed out Tony Blair put Poland’s coalition government in a dilemma, for to stay in power they depend on a sizeable peasant party for support.
It is not in the interests of Poland’s peasant party for the CAP to be reformed, as their supporters, as farmers, would suffer. Yet it is in the interests of the rest of the Polish economy if the CAP share of the EU budget is reduced, so there is more European investment available to transform the rest of the Polish economy. So that Poles, in future, would not need to seek jobs abroad. As for Germany, Angela observed, reform is vital for Europe, but especially for the German economy, if the new German Chancellor is going to succeed in getting more people back into work.
At the end of the conference, this group of new friends had learnt a lot about Europe and each other’s perspectives on the issues. I myself, despite a very bad cold, had enjoyed the food and learnt what a poor job much of Britain’s media had done on reporting Europe. I had also discovered that we shared many of the same dreams and problems and also agreed many of the issues facing Europe. The problems and the solutions that we face, means that member states have to work together in Brussels to tackle them. We agreed Europe, had despite French efforts, moved on. I expect much to many euro sceptics’ disgust, that we had feared to tread where they fear and to explore, in case such an experience will cause their tower of disappearing and nostalgic arguments cards to collapse.