Christopher Hitchens on the Euro, Ireland, the Border… whatever. April 27, 2010Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, The Left, US Politics.
One of the curiosities of Slate.com is the fact they retain Christopher Hitchens as a commentator extraordinaire. No harm there you may say, and you could be right. But it’s just that Hitchens comes out with some odd stuff. Nothing surprising there you may say, and you’d be entirely right.
But, given his political background, even in the context of a discussion of the Euro (under the heading, natch, ‘Is the Euro Doomed?’) this is… unusual.
First up we must applaud ChristopherHitchensWatch getting here first on the issue of the great man’s precognitive abilities. Precognitive abilities you ask, adding that to a lengthy list of his marvels. Why yes… for a man who is, to borrow a phrase from David Cameron, as immodest (his words – not mine) as he is ambitious, the following is mighty stuff…
Sometimes, sheer immodesty compels me to ask, of my long record of prescience, what did I know, and when and how did I know it? In the summer of 2005, Foreign Policy magazine asked its contributors to name one taken-for-granted thing that they thought was overrated or would not last. After a brief interval of reflection, I chose the euro.
But this belief springs not from too little affection for the European project, no, one could argue that it comes from an excess of love.
I can be absolutely certain that I did not do this because I wanted to be right. On the contrary, I would much have preferred to be mistaken. When I still lived in Europe, I was one of the few on the left to advocate an enlargement of the community and to identify it with the progressive element in politics. This was mainly because I had seen the positive effect that Europeanism had exerted on the periphery of the continent, especially in Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Until the middle of the 1970s, these countries had been ruled by backward-looking dictatorships, generally religious and military in character and dependent on military aid from the more conservative circles in the United States. Because the European community allowed only parliamentary democracies to join, the exclusion from the continent’s heartland gave a huge incentive to the middle class in these countries to support the overthrow of despotism.
Now let me say that that sounds plausible enough. Until, that is you read the following.
The same attraction had a solvent effect on other countries, too. Once the Irish Republic became a member and was thus part of the same customs union as the United Kingdom, the border with Northern Ireland became an irrelevance, and it was only a matter of time before the sectarian war would begin to seem irrelevant. In Cyprus, the wish of both Greek and Turkish Cypriots to become European was a potent element in setting the stage for negotiations to end that post-colonial partition. The modernization and opening of Turkey, highly uneven as it is, has a great deal to do with the same pull toward a common European system. And it goes without saying that the people of Eastern Europe, even while the Berlin Wall still stood, measured their aspirations by how swiftly they, too, could meet the criteria for membership and escape the dreary, wasteful Comecon system that was the Soviet Union’s own parody of a supranational agreement.
To which one could ask, he’s got to be kidding right? And to which one could add, no, probably not. Let’s push aside, if that were possible, the fact that the partition of Cyprus is as yet unresolved. Let’s try to ignore the problem that Turkey seems – if anything – to be shifting away from the EU, and in no small part due to unrequited love… unrequited by the EU that is.
Let’s just examine the example most of us are probably most reasonably familiar with. Now I’m a pedant over this issue, but truth is Irish Republic is not the name of the state I live in. It’s Republic of Ireland. And there’s the point that this isn’t just pedantry because in the late 1940s under pressure in part from Stormont the UK government made some effort to try to push the IR appellation in order not to reify the Republic of Ireland title which seemed to concede ownership, in rhetorical terms at least, of the entirety of the island. As it happens in almost all international fora I can think of Republic of Ireland is the name used. And, for the record, I’m pretty unworried by Northern Ireland as a name. [my pedantry let me down slightly, although Ireland is the name of the state under the Constitution, RoI is the description of the state under the Republic of Ireland Act 1948- wbs ]
But on what possible reading of the history of the past forty odd years or so does the ‘membership of the same customs union’ – not by the way strictly accurate, where membership dated from four years after the conflict broke out again, lead us to a position where it took another two and a half decades to move to permanent cessations give credibility to his assertion?
Even the term sectarian seems to me to beg too much. As has been discussed on the CLR previously, yes there were clearly sectarian aspects to the conflict, but… to characterise it as ‘sectarian’ in its totality is to ignore the socio-political nature of much of it.
But it’s the idea that the border became an irrelevancy because of the EU which I find most strikingly incorrect. No, the border has become [largely] an irrelevancy due to the workings of the peace process. Not the other way around. Anyone crossing it, as I did, often on a weekly basis in parts of the late 1980s will know that it very much existed then. And that at a time when Ireland and the UK had been both partners within the EEC for well over a decade and a half.
This isn’t to say that the European context had no effect. I think it did as part of many other elements, not least in introducing a slightly more even field wherein the Irish and British governments could interact and where a much more profound pooling of sovereignty and the establishment of cross border executive entities, while profoundly innovative due to their executive function, could be sold as somewhat less innovative given the range of competencies devolved to the EU.
But Hitchens ignores one salient point. The UK remains aloof from the Euro. And yet he then argues that:
The logic of this seemed to necessitate a single currency, which in turn meant that a unified Germany, instead of dominating Europe, as the British and French reactionaries had always feared, would become a Europeanized Germany.
But truth is that somehow we’re managing quite well, albeit with the use of the euro in the North as well as the pound Sterling. So maybe that logic isn’t quite as flawless as he might think.
Further on, though, it is interesting how Hitchens argues:
How tragic it is that the euro system has already, in effect, become a two-tier one and that the bottom tier is occupied by the very countries—Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Ireland—that benefited most from their accession to the European Union.
“PIGS” is the unlovely acronym for the nations—Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain—that constitute the shiftless out-group within the in-group. (Italy is sometimes included in the club.) It’s very improbable that nations that haven’t yet signed up to the euro—Britain and many Scandinavian states among them—will now do so. And that being the case, with the euro just another bill you have to exchange when moving around within Europe—then what becomes of the dream?
I don’t know. But I think his argument begs the question as to whether Europe, inverted comma’s or not, has ever been purely about the economic structure, albeit that is embedded in its heart, as the conceptual or myth. Of course to whom that appears like a dream is a further interesting question.