Tag Archive: European Politics

Ever the student of Irony, I thought I’d follow up a post generally advocating an eastern grouping opposing a western grouping in the Council with talking about the need for exactly this type of division to be eradicated.  The reason why what I talked about in my previous post is necessary is because the dominance of two nations over all the rest is not healthy for anyone (apart from the two nations involved).  It is not so necessary that the challenge comes from the east, but it seems as if that is the most likely place for it to come. What is more, the EU is still very divided in exactly this sense and while everyone must work to fight this, in the mean time the smaller and newer member states need to pool together their votes and influence so as not to be overran by the older and bigger members.  However this kind of confrontation will not be necessary if the East/West gap is sufficiently addressed.

The overreaching issue in EU politics at the moment is that for all the fanfare of “United in Diversity” (in which I am a complete believer btw) the reality is different. The cracks in the EU structure are legion and they are centuries old. The English mistrust the French, The French mistrust the Germans, the Germans think they are better than everyone, Everyone thinks the Italians and Greeks are lazy and everyone in the west despises and fears the states from the East. This is just a sweeping generalisation of the type of divisions, bigotries and prejudice which still haunts the EU. None is greater however than the East/West divide as it is most recent and most raw.  In the Eastern Block the older generations have spent their entire lives being indoctrinated into dismissing western society as consumerist, exploitative and broken. This kind of thing doesn’t just go away. In the west, we are still being indoctrinated whenever the subject of communism comes up with a lot of garbage which leads everyone to view Eastern Block states as stuck in the middle ages.  Both of these schools of thought must be eradicated if we are to build a cohesive European society. The way to do that is, of course, through better education.

Since the fall of Communism, eastern block countries have lifted the veil of ignorance and the younger generation has become very open to western ways of thinking and living. In fact,  perhaps they have become too open to the point of eroding their own national identity. For the purpose of this discussion however, this is a good thing. Young people in the Eastern parts of the EU are being taught comprehensive world history, as well as western ideas and ideals. One thing which can be said of Communism is that at least outside of the involvement of the Communist party they did allow the teaching of a holistic view of world history which churned out citizens who were not ignorant of the World in this sense.

The same cannot be said of the west. I can only speak of the education system in the UK,  where I studied. However, judging from attitudes displayed by politicians and low-middle level western technocrats I have encountered, prejudice is still endemic. The enemy of prejudice is of course knowledge. In many ways, while I get frustrated at what I see it is hard to blame people who don’t know any better. As Jesus said, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do”. This is true in very many cases. As an example, the UK education system is woeful when it comes to teaching History. As far as the UK History curriculum is concerned, children need only be aware of the the events which involve England in one way or another-they even only learn of the Roman Empire in the small way it affects them (which leads to an inflated sense of importance of the events occurring in the Britain at that time, which were by comparison inconsequential).  It is no wander that this produces students with unshakable national confidence and extremely questionable general knowledge. This is a thread that runs uninterrupted-The Middle ages, Renaissance, the entire history of Europe is taught in England (and I believe elsewhere in Western Europe) as if Europe begins and ends with the West. Almost no mention is made of anything happening further east than Hungary, with the occasional mentions of Poland and Byzantium (usually when they somehow relate to the West).

This is, quite clearly a farce.

Anyone who has spent even a small modicum of time studying the history of our continent should be able to see that reality is much different. Let’s start with the most glaring example. The Byzantine Empire was culturally, economically, politically, militarily greater than any state in Western Europe until perhaps the colonial era. Yet it attracts so few mentions. Any telling of the story of Europe should accord at least as much time to the Byzantine Empire as to any other state and in fairness probably double that of most.  Secondly, and this is a subject of particular importance to me since I am Bulgarian, is the omission of my country from medieval and pre-medieval history.  This is a glaring hole in any textbook, rivalling the hole left by the scant discussion of Byzantium.  It is a historical truth that between the 7th and 14th centuries the two most developed nations in Europe were Byzantium and Bulgaria. This is true of Byzantium even before the 7th century (the situation only ended because both states were occupied by the Ottoman Turks). This is the case for the following reasons. Unlike western states which were feudal in nature, both Bulgaria and Byzantium were much more centralised and were arranged a lot more like a modern state. They had therefore, more developed political systems which also lead to superior quality of life and cultural achievements. Furthermore both states exercised control over the Church and not vice versa, which stopped the period known in the west as “the dark ages” from ever happening in the east. It is during this time that the Cyrillic alphabet was invented in the First Bulgarian Empire and disseminated to the Slavic world.  How many western nations can claim such cultural achievement? The two Eastern empires were also more powerful. A few examples to that effect. The battle of Tours is famous for stopping Islamic conquest of Europe, but again it is instructive that this was conquest of Western Europe. Only 20 odd years previous was the Siege of Constantinople which led to a battle between Byzantium and Bulgaria on one side and the Umayyad Caliphate on the other. The forces engaged in that battle were much greater than at Tours and the blow dealt to the Caliphate was consequently much more serious in  military terms. Yet it is almost never mentioned.  Another example is the battle of Adrianople, between Bulgaria and the Latin Empire which was a crusader kingdom temporarily usurping Byzantium and conveying western power in the east.  The battle was more akin to a slaughter, with the Latin Empire’s forces being dwarfed to the extent that Tsar Kaloyan’s army was described as innumerable by one chronicler.  This was a vivid example of the disparity between East and West at that time, only in favour of the East.

Yet, it is as if these things never happened. Of course, dig in encyclopaedias long enough and you will find these facts there, but who does? The fact is that it is easy and natural for western pupils to grow up believing people in the east are next to savages if they have not been properly educated in what is, after all, the truth.  It is not until we tackle this limited representation of history that we can start bridging the gaps in our collective, European community. I raised this point at a conference/event at the European Parliament this year (an event on tackling prejudice organised by Romanian MEPs I believe) and got some encouraging replies from the panel. Apparently work is being done on a common, European History book which should take accurate account of the history of Europe rather than the rather skewed version being currently taught. Hopefully, the project endures and does not fall victim to rampant austerity, because this project is crucial. Until we educate each other or one another’s achievements it is impossible to breed the requisite level of mutual respect which will allow the EU to function properly, rather than having populist politicians constantly falling pray to the prejudices of their voters and having to kowtow to them, since it is far too late to educate those masses.  I can speak with certainty only of my corner of the Eastern block, but I am certain that much of the achievements and history of other Eastern block states are also routinely overlooked in the same manner. This is simply unsustainable.

While the biggest problem is in the West, there is also an issue in the East. Even though the new generation is open to new, western ideas in theory, their application in practice is proving difficult. Concepts such as the Rule of Law, transparent democracy, fighting corruption are struggling to take hold. Furthermore, disillusioned by decades of communism, Eastern Bloc citizens do not see the value in civil participation and voting for example. Voter apathy is a serious problem and re-enforces the problems with corruption etc..  A lot needs to be done by right thinking politicians and by active citizens to challenge the status quo and actually absorb the beneficial experiences of western nations of which they are rightly so proud.  Both East and West then, have serious tasks ahead of them. If both are achieved we may begin to see less a distinction made between western states and eastern states and more (if distinctions must be made) between states based on their individual merits or failings. Roughly then, we could really start talking about “Europe” as if it were a united thing.


This article will be the first part of a body of work which I will write in the aim of formulating a coherent set of internal and foreign policies and ideas which will perhaps allow the EU to overcome its current troubles and prosper for the future. I am not labouring under the delusion that policymakers will read this blog and will implement my suggestions-this is written for my own benefit and if someone who has influence in these things should come upon it and think there are good ideas than so much the better.

Right now the EU is in deep crisis. The world is not doing too hot generally, but it seems that Europe is the worst hit (of course ignoring the absurd levels of debt that the USA is actually in). The Union, as an institution which is incredibly complex is also facing complex problems. While I clearly don’t hold all, if any, of the answers, at least to me some things are self evident.

The first step in tackling any problem in the political arena requires strong leadership. Unfortunately, the EU is by definition diametrically opposed to the notion of leadership in the national sense.  Such a figure would be instantly opposed by almost all involved. The alternative therefore is to fix the system of leadership which we do have currently as it appears to be deficient in several ways. Running something through a council is ineffective at the best of times but it is necessary when considered in the context of Europe’s ultra violent and divided past. But answer this one question-how is a system designed to be fair and provide decisions which everyone is at least partially happy with supposed to endure when the decision process is so skewed in favour of certain Member States? How long are the rest supposed to go along with this? The system seems to have gotten along fine for a long time, but when the chips are down, no one likes having their fate out of their own hands (and nor should that be the case), which is why the time is finally ripe to challenge Franco-German dominance of the EU.

The logic goes that France and Germany are the biggest contributors into the common pot and therefore should have the most say-this isn’t obviously institutionalised or often verbalised, however this is the thought process which prevents other heads of state from consistently challenging France and Germany over common policy proposals. Naturally, France and Germany don’t always agree and they don’t always get their own way in the Council, especially on highly emotive issues. However they do have a definite degree of dominance over other member states, even other net contributors such as the UK and the Netherlands. There is a degree of fairness to the chief contributors getting slightly more of a say, however the level of disparity is not appropriate. Lets not forget that the Council is far from being the only place where this dominance is expressed-a quick look at the top appointments in the Commission and other institutions will also demonstrate how disproportionate the situation is. Clearly, this cannot continue in the current situation-when times are hard people are a lot less likely to accept being ordered around by a ruling clique. The fact that France and Germany consistently get together to hammer out a common position before summits, with the expectation generally being that whatever they decided will then be adopted (subject to cosmetic changes after they have finishing throwing the occasional bone to Italy, the Netherlands or Spain) is both insulting to the rest of the EU 27 and makes a mockery of the EU decision process. Being the EU’s sugar daddy (especially Germany) surely affords you some perks but should it effectively lead to Europe surrendering itself to France and Germany on a platter. (The irony in Germany’s case of course being that they so recently fought such a bloody war to conquer Europe-they need not have bothered-their cheque book would have done instead).

It is heartening therefore to see something like the Visegrad group emerge. It is good that a large and strong block of member states have appeared who have the capability (if not always the need or desire) to oppose the Franco-German position on key issues. Visegrad is not quite as strong, but it is a start. I read a piece in Stratfor recently which suggested that Bulgaria and Romania should join the Visegrad Group and I for one think that is a sound idea. That will strengthen the bloc enough to ensure that France and Germany cannot steamroll over the council and will provide wavering Member States another strong grouping with which to side if they do not agree with what is being proposed.  There are two big problems with such a state of events. Firstly, a face off between France and Germany on the one side and Poland, The Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary (+ Possibly Bulgaria and Romania) will rekindle the old East vs West divide. Furthermore it could lead to a constant stalemate in the council which would cripple EU decision making. This could of course be avoided if the politicians involved act in good faith and do so intelligently. However if we could trust them to do that, then we would not be where we are now in more ways than one.  To a large extent the problem with France and Germany dictating policy is that they often do not do so in good faith. Overtly, the idea is always for the benefit of the Union however it is a very naive soul who believes for a second that their individual leaders are not constantly trying to make it so their nations benefit the most. The council is not a place where the common interest takes precedence and that is why we need the Commission. How then are we to believe that any member state could be trusted to make a decision in the common interest? For my part I see that as nonsense. In order to avoid the need for Cold War mk2 in the EU council every member state must be more willing to be robust in the face of Franco-German domination. That won’t be easy, but it must become the norm. Personally I don’t think they hold that much over the rest of the EU 27 as seems to be the common fear. By that I mean, that the relationship is symbiotic. The net payers contribute the vast part of the EU budget and in return get disproportionate representation across the institutions. However, a look at the relative in/out stats for the EU 27 shows that France and Germany’s position is not that unique. While they are the two biggest contributors the difference between them and say Italy in the UK is not vast. While they provide the biggest net amount into the budget when you factor in the money they get back, they are not the most hard done by per capita-those would be the Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. Should those states also not have a similar say? Moreover since their situation is such, why are they not pushing the status quo harder?

The UK’s case is unique, in the sense that it is the politically strongest member state outside of France and Germany but most “wins” it gets revolve around trying to extricate itself from the day to day life in the Union and from its obligations. Therefore, the UK, which could have been a leader of the EU and a major counterweight to the “Dictat” has instead made itself into a political non-event through its own Euro-skepticism. The way which the UK treats its EU partners means that it could never become a leader in the Union-you cannot lead those who widely despise you. A major PR drive (as well as tackling Euro-skepticism at home) is necessary if the UK is to assume a role in the EU which would benefit both it and the Union as a whole. The other closest possible rival is Italy, who however has genuinely been in agreement with the policies emanating from Paris and Berlin-or at least Silvio Berlusconi has (the two not being quite anonymous). Once he finally, mercifully, goes it may be another story and we may have a genuinely powerful member state with the appetite to have more of a say long term (provided that their economy doesn’t collapse in the mean time).

The reason this is such an issue is that we must get our political process in order before we can successfully deal with our financial problems.  In fact our political situation is possibly one of the major roadblocks to fixing the crisis. It should by now be obvious that the approach of brutal austerity and vast bail outs is not working. This is the stance taken by France and Germany and they seem unable or unwilling to consider another approach. The main strength of the EU is its many “heads”-at this stage we should use them all and come up with a better solution than the one being peddled by Paris and Berlin-they have hijacked the EU’s decision making process for too long and what is more, their solutions aren’t helping. The latest, Tobin tax idea is actually quite good but that can’t make up for everything else. Simply put we need all hands on deck to tackle the problems we have and that means Member States need to step up and bring France and Germany down to Earth one way or another.