In 1910 Brigadier-General Henry Wilson gave a lecture arguing that a European war was inevitable and Britain’s only option was to ally with France. One of the attending officers responded by suggesting that only “inconceivable stupidity on the part of statesmen” could trigger such a disaster. Wilson responded with derision, saying that “inconceivable stupidity is just what you’re going to get.” A century later and “inconceivable stupidity” is alive and well at the highest levels in both the United States and Europe. Why?
A new report from the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations under the chairmanship of former World Trade Organization boss Pascal Lamy, entitled Now for the Long Term focuses on short-termism in the business sector but could just as well apply to politics.
Europe is an example. Those who push for deeper European integration offer two main arguments—the aggregated influence afforded by the concentration of power in the EU and the “inevitable decline” of the European nation-state. For these people it is vital that EU institutions be given much greater power over decision-making in the twin names of efficiency and effectiveness. In a sense they implicitly suggest that only EU institutions are capable of the long-term thinking that Europe desperately needs.
To some extent they have a point. Take David Cameron’s attempts to repatriate powers from Brussels to Britain. Cameron argues his case purely on the grounds of Britain’s national interest. It is doomed to fail. Instead, Britain should be presenting a principled case about the nature of governance in Europe and the dangers of creating an over-mighty European executive.
Recently, it was announced that in 2015 the European Commission will demand that all European citizens dispose of their garbage/trash in four separate containers. Such meddling by Brussels has gone way too far as the Commission interprets European treaties to the maximum in its power struggle with member-states.
The trouble with the long-term is that in Europe it is broken up into many national short-terms – namely elections. In principle an integrated EU led by a European Government underpinned with proper democratic oversight by a functioning European Parliament is very attractive.
However, most of those that argue for deeper European integration do so purely on the basis of short-term economics. A rich economic dictatorship, they argue in a way, would be preferable to poor democracy. That, of course, is not what they believe but that is the long-term implication of their short-termism.
Indeed, if the center of gravity in Europe was the European Commission and today’s European Parliament the ratio between the representative and the represented would go from roughly one parliamentary deputy for every 50,000 citizens to one parliamentary deputy to every 500,000 citizens. That is why Europe is at a dangerous juncture.
Furthermore, the very nature of EU politics, far from aggregating the power of EU member-states, is actually accelerating its decline. The member-states blame Brussels and Brussels blames the member-states. In the space between there is a massive sovereignty black-hole into which power and accountability is lost.
National politicians fail to see such dangers lost amidst the short-term minutiae of the daily EU haggle. Indeed, many European politicians have lost sight of the big, dangerous trends taking place beyond Europe’s borders. Indeed, one only has to look at the willful and imprudent disarmament in Europe to realize the extent to which European political short-termism is disconnecting European security from world security.
The EU and its advocates have to exaggerate the smallness of the European nation-state to justify their demand for the concentration of state power in EU institutions. Sadly, this power struggle is rendering both the European state and the EU impotent with NATO caught in the politico-strategic middle.
Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.