Gerry Hassan: Worlds apart on question of union

European flags, and the EU standard, outside the European Parliament. Picture: Getty
European flags, and the EU standard, outside the European Parliament. Picture: Getty
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There’s a storm brewing as the UK reassesses its place in Europe and Scotland reconsiders its part in the UK, writes Gerry Hassan

Prague Spring. Two words which evoke a certain feeling, the hopes of a generation, European idealism and the past. Today, Europe could not be in a more different frame of mind – the brief optimism of 1968 and 1989 long gone. All across the continent, European political, elite and civic conversations are under way about “whither Europe?” and “what future for the eurozone?”

In the last two weeks I have participated in two of these, attending the Prague Press Forum and before that speaking to ministers and officials of the Irish government in Dublin. Europe is worried about itself, its future, the European project and Britain. German broadcaster Jurgen Kronig believes part of the problem is the ambiguous nature of German leadership.

Germany, he argues, is an “unwilling hegemon”, a “late nation” which was not fully formed until 1871 and which has never fully adapted in its post-war expression to doing great diplomacy, foreign policy and the subtleties of geo-political positioning. Kronig believes that Henry Kissinger got it right when he said: “Germany is too big for Europe, and too small for the world”.

There is still, among some, the attraction of a Europe without barriers. This was the view of Austrian broadcaster Cornelia Vospernik, who stated that “Europe should not just be a supermarket” based on consumer goods and picking what you want: long the British vision.

Yet this came back to the hard realities of what kind of integration is attainable and the impossibility of a common defence and foreign policy. What would happen to the UN Security Council seats of the UK and France? Who would get their hands on the nuclear deterrents of these countries?

Karel Schwarzenberg, Czech foreign minister, told us that it would be a “gigantic catastrophe” if the UK left the EU and that “Europe will not be Europe without Britain”.

There is a commonplace British conceit that only the UK debates these issues or worries about the European democratic deficit. Instead, all across the continent, politicians and experts recognise the absence of a European demos, identity and politics, and that the European project has been created by elites.

While the eurozone crisis captures headlines, people ignore what Hungary says about our democracies and Europe. The current Hungarian government passed a draconian constitution which curbs human rights in just over a month with little or no consultation.

As one Hungarian observed, from the experience of free market capitalism there has arisen “a romance for the last 20 years of Hungarian communism” and the idea of “the good dictator”.

What has the EU done in response to this attack on human rights in Hungary? It has written a report and done nothing, when what should be discussed is suspending Hungary from the EU. The EU club is one with criterion for getting in, but once in you can do what you like.

Dublin officials and advisers, as illustrated by former Irish taoiseach John Bruton, are unfazed by the idea of Scottish independence. What worries them is where the UK is heading and its implications for Ireland. They identify three Irish approaches: distancing itself from the UK, move with the UK to exit or near-exit, or “the third way” of attempting to explain the UK’s concerns to European audiences and acting as a bridge builder. Like many across the world, they feel a little bemused by the current turn of British Eurosceptism.

There is a continental pessimism about Britain and the European project. Most European elite conversations involve trying to balance the desire and perceived need for greater integration, particularly in the incomplete eurozone project, federalism and different degrees of union, or “renationalisation” as its called in Euro speak.

British sensibilities are in a very different place. British journalist John Lloyd noted that European conversations were filled by “a cosmopolitan elite which was at best 3 per cent of the population”. The majority of Europe was better reflected in the anxieties of “Mrs Duffy, who collared Gordon Brown at the last UK election”. That does seem a ridiculously stark view: Eurocrats versus a worried woman from Rochdale, and nothing in between.

In his remarks, Lloyd launched a defence of the UK against Scottish independence based on five points: tetchy comradeship, natural mixing, pooling of resources, economic security, and being a sort of significant world power.

Martin Woollacott of the Guardian asked that if the Czechs and Slovaks voted on their “divorce”, why should not the English vote on Scottish independence?

The British contributions to Prague were imbued with a conservative pessimism from the most liberal voices: Britain and Europe have not turned out the way they wanted. Lloyd at one point, in a supposedly critical remark on Scottish independence, railed against its “small nation coziness”. Is not that a positive virtue versus the grandiose over-reach and hyperbole of the Great British power project?

Scotland, the UK and Europe involve two marriages and relationships which if they are not heading for the divorce courts are shifting in terms of how they live with each other

Two debates and two votes, interconnected and intertwined at a Scottish level, whereas in the Westminster bubble, the obsession is solely on Europe, parliamentary sovereignty, and a misplaced belief that the UK can shift itself into some Atlanticist or Anglosphere orbit.

This moment is a threat to the independence debate, yet it is also an opportunity. Whatever the small differences in public opinion between us and the rest of the UK, Scotland is a European nation which aspires to be part of the mainstream.

The union David Cameron and the Eurosceptics are defending is a deeply unappealing one: defence of the City of London, deregulation, tax havens, and uncodified human rights. It says something about the deep crisis of progressive Britain and Labour that such a mix should be able to seize the political agenda, but it has.

This is not our union. It is not the union most Scots want and we should be thankful amid all the uncertainty and fluidity that Cameron has begun to make it clear what kind of European and British unions he wants.