Deepest, darkest Yorkshire – The Awakening. When I was a lad my grandmother’s house in Sheffield had an outside toilet. This was not uncommon in the grittier parts of the Yorkshire industrial belt. There was a phrase used at the time to describe someone or something that had ideas above their station. “It is like putting bay (fancy) windows on an outside toilet”, the phrase went, although the Yorkshire vernacular was somewhat more direct and smellier.
I have just come back from the pub where I had a chat with two blokes. In Yorkshire such a gathering in such a place constitutes a scientific sample at a centre of knowledge excellence. After a pint or two the subject of European defence came up. Well, I brought it up. At first, one of my interlocutors thought I was talking about the forthcoming Champions League final at Wembley. In particular, Manchester United’s chances against the robustly rampant Barcelona. However, we soon got down to ‘brass military tacks’ (the basics) as they say in these here parts.
The reason I broached a seemingly dangerous subject here in my native Yorkshire was that last week I saw my old friend Colin Cameron in Paris. Colin is the Clerk to the Western European Union Assembly, which is about to be no more ending some sixty-three years of parliamentary oversight of European defence. Much maligned and often unfairly so this collection of senior national politicians provided both experience and insight and with the demise of the Assembly critical parliamentary oversight of Europe’s failing defence effort has been weakened.
Several ‘truths’ were then uttered. First, that there exists a startling gap between the European elite and ordinary Europeans. Second, that the extent to which the Brussels elite dismisses the views and common sense of ordinary Europeans is dangerous. Third, that there are equally dangerous delusions of unaccountable grandeur are harboured by the unelected Euro-Aristocracy or Eurocrats. The main message of the chat was clear. if ‘Brussels’ does not carry the people then the European project is dead.
I have worked on European defence for nigh on thirty years and I have also worked for the European Onion and I have never known the gap between the people and the European elite to be so strong. Being genetically prone to common sense Yorksire folk call the EU the Onion because it is opaque, multi-layered and has a centre that stinks.
It would be easy to dismiss such skepticism as the typically British ramblings of an island little imbued with the European spirit. And yet it is a sentiment I pick up today all over Europe. In recent years I have lived in Italy, France and the Netherlands and I spend much of my life travelling across the Onion. In that time Euro-scepticism has not only swelled it has migrated from these shores across much of the Old Continent.
So, what does this mean for European defence? If one listens to the more wild-eyed of the Brussels Euro-fanatics one would think nothing. Defence has always been for the bureaucratic elite, n’est ce pas? In fact, the use of force – the real issue here – is at the very core of sovereignty, particularly parliamentary sovereignty. Without proper and effective parliamentary oversight the message from my Italian, French and Dutch friends, not to mention my more succinctly phrased Yorkshire friends, is clear – over my dead body.
The European Parliament comes in for particular ire being seen by many Europeans as staffed by self-serving over-paid, wannabes with little interest in or care for the peoples they are meant to represent. That is probably unfair but I have seen for myself the dangerous mix of inexperience and arrogance on the several occasions I have addressed members of the European Parliament. As such it is incapable of providing sound parliamentary oversight. This leaves the Euro-Aristocracy – those unbelievably highly-paid, untaxed rarified Eurocrats who always think they know best. They do not. Of course, there is the European Council where the ‘real’ decisions are apparently made. Sadly, after a decade of a defence-busting lack of solidarity between member-states the Council agrees on little. And, the plain fact is that the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon (you remember, the non-Constitution) did give an awful lot more power to the Euro-Aristocrats and some more power to the Parliament, whatever London might like to pretend.
Here is the paradox. We will all need more Europe in future because the only way declining European states can exert real influence on a dangerous world is through solidarity and joint action. However, the gap between the citizens and the elite makes such action almost impossible.
Colin and his colleagues re-invented themselves some years back as the European Security and Defence Assembly, offering a direct link between directly elected national politicians and European defence. Surely, rather than scrapping this vital link to critical to the fostering of critical European defence (as opposed to Euro-fantasy) some form of hybrid grouping could have been fashioned to a) keep European defence truly inter-governmental; and b) maintain a proper and direct link with my mates in the pub? If not European defence will go nowhere.
When I hear the Euro-Aristocracy in Brussels describing the ‘progress’ being made in and on European defence I cannot help but remember ‘my Nan’ and what she would have said. It is a sentiment that is reflected across much of Europe. Unless the sovereignty/oversight gap is fixed European defence is indeed like putting bay windows on an outside toilet!
That concludes the three blogs I chose to write during my writing/walking week in this truly stunning part of my native county.
As they would also say in these here parts, “That’s yer lot!”
Next week, Poland.
Professor Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Strategic Advisor’s Group of the Atlantic Council, Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.