Tuesday 23 December 2014

Book Review: Europe must change ways or be damned

Sinclair McKay

Published 05/06/2014 | 02:30

Trouble with Europe by Roger Bootle.
Trouble with Europe by Roger Bootle.

Like many people who consider themselves to be broadly sane, I find that any time I give thought to the EU, my bonnet starts undulating with agitated bees.

But Bootle's thesis, put very simply, is that the euro currency and the EU itself are unsustainable in their current form. This might sound like heresy to hardcore Europhiles. But his argument is calm, conversational, rigorous and – quite remarkably for an economist – entirely free of the bafflegab his fellow practitioners have always favoured. Bootle whisks us through a millennia of shifting political and cultural tides on the continent, and carefully considers the post-war climate that gave rise to the original European Coal and Steel Community of 1950 (amazing, isn't it, how antique that formulation now sounds?).

Along the way, he analyses the steadily expanding Union's economic performance, buffeted as it has been by rough winds of conflict and recession.

"The EU has not been an outright failure," he says graciously of its earlier years – though adding that in recent times, its economic performance, thanks to the euro, has been a disaster; the sorry result of a hubristic political desire imposed in the face of economic common sense.

"We are where we are because of the astounding arrogance and incompetence of the European political elite," he says. Even 'The Guardian's' economics correspondent now agrees that the idea of a single currency used by wildly divergent economies – Germany and Greece, let's say – is fraught with danger.

BEGUILING

Bootle is also very good at navigating the frothing waters of potential euro exit. The author is careful not to overstate the case either way: he notes, for example, that America currently would prefer Britain to remain within the EU, and so too would various inward investors from the Far East. But he makes careful and beguiling cases for different grades of withdrawal – there are subtle ways it could be achieved – and the possible repercussions.

At the core of this thoroughly engaging and absorbing book is a distinction that many will feel.

"The culture I love is European," writes Bootle, "its food and its wine ... its literature and its art and for me, especially, its music". Bootle doesn't dwell on contemptuous high-living elitist politicians gliding through Brussels. To euro non-believers, one of the most consistently maddening aspects of the cultural debate has been the assumed intellectual superiority and sophistication of those who favour "ever closer union"; and the daubing of those who don't as dim-bulb xenophobes.

Bootle is also a hard-nosed free-market enthusiast who sees a cold new world of rising economic powers and greater pressures. Shackling disparate countries to an unyielding political construct, as embodied by the euro, is not the way to help them thrive. Certainly, others might observe, it did not shield them from the 2008 crash. The high priests of euro-worship insist that the philosophy of Brussels ensures that workplace rights, and trade, remain fundamentally decent and fair.

The question is: do such noble intentions now sound as hopelessly quaint as "coal and steel community"? Here is an eye-opening book that will inspire you to think through the issues clearly – without starting a saloon-bar brawl.

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