Mesmerised by a monopoly

‘Monopolies stifle innovation and keep prices high.’ This is relatively uncontroversial assertion and you’d likely struggle to find someone in the public sphere to speak in favour of maintaining a monopoly.

There is, however, a notable exception; an organisation which has managed to exercise a near monopoly in much of Western Europe for decades. It does provide important services, but it is secretive and — despite powerful influence over almost every aspect of people’s lives — minimally accountable. From its privileged position it garners billions of pounds annually from the collective pocket of ordinary people. Needless to say, its top people are paid huge salaries that place them amongst the infamous top ‘one percent’ of earners. Above all, it is an organisation that puts the pursuit of its own objectives first, before the provision of those services for which its subscribers look to it.

With so much wealth and power at stake, this outfit is understandably careful to maintain its position and quick to confront any threat. Allowing reasoned debate is too risky, so steps are take to discredit any opposition, dismissing their concerns as hysterical and impugning their motives. As one would expect, the favour of the broader public is sought via advertising and sponsorship, but there are also generously funded, rather creepy initiatives that target younger and more malleable minds. Potential competitors are, naturally, crushed at the earliest opportunity. Finally there is an almost apocalyptic claim: that if this group is not allowed to continue its protected existence then we, the people, should fear for our prosperity and even our very lives.

Thankfully there are both politicians and ordinary citizens who strive to highlight the unhealthy power of this entity and campaign for a boycott. Still, most opinion formers and a sizeable proportion of the population have been successfully inculcated with a profound fear — that were it not for this organisation’s existence, the vital needs it provides for would go wholly unmet.

Anyone familiar with my political hobby-horses may have guessed where this is all going; for everyone else, here comes the ‘reveal’. This is not some global bank, wicked multi-national corporation or other commercial enterprise, but the European Union. Yes, the EU — monopoly provider of trade and cooperation to the nations of Europe.

For too long the debate has solely been on the EU’s terms, with the binary choice of “do you want what we’re selling, or not?” being the only one offered. Yet on this particular issue scarcely anyone seems to respond with a response that would seem obvious and reasonable in any other context: “yes, but why should I buy from you?”.

For Europe’s sake the EU’s racket should to be broken up by the fostering of alternative forums for trade and cooperation, and cultivating a market in place of monopoly. The greatest threat to the European Union isn’t opposition, but competition.

YouGov Cambridge’s EU poll both vindicates & challenges Eurosceptics

For someone with a eurosceptic axe to grind, YouGov Cambridge’s report on ‘Public Opinion and the Future of Europe’ is that most delightful of things — rigorous, academic confirmation of what one instinctively believed. Parallel polls were run across a number of European countries, further broken down by voting intention for the British results.

  • A majority of British voters want less integration, not more, and a referendum to confirm our relationship with the EU. The poll accurately maps the rift that has opened up between the British electorate and political class on this issue, something Alistair Heath’s CityAM editorial highlights.
  • While the British are more sceptical of the EU than most, other peoples across Europe also think the EU is undemocratic and want many key policy areas to remain under national control.
  • Amongst the countries polled, the views of Northern European voters are much more closely aligned with British attitudes than those of Central and Southern Europeans.

However, unconstrained as I am by the strictures of academia, I feel justified in going a bit further than YouGov Cambridge’s analysis to point out what I believe to be a less sharply defined, but perhaps more profound pattern in the data. While the more ‘EU-friendly’ countries do indeed express general support for EU integration and their country’s part in it, when it comes to specific issues people all across our continent mostly view the EU as just another institution that provides a mere means to an end.

This qualified, pragmatic support for the European Union seems to be concentrated around issues where respondants’ own government is unable or unwilling to act, or where a cross-border approach naturally recommends itself.

Italy, France and Germany all return broadly similar numbers on general questions about integration as well as on more focussed ones about selected policy areas, such as control of military action or fighting terrorism. However, support in Italy clearly rises above than in either France or Germany when it comes to the idea of turning the EU into a ‘United States of Europe’, and electing an EU president to be “chief executive in the same manner as the President of the United States of America”. Are Italians especially fond of federal structures, or do they simply believe they have a better chance of competent and stable government from Brussels than from Rome?

Despite expressing a clear preference for retaining (or, presumably, regaining) national control over nearly all the policy areas they were asked about, even the firmly eurosceptic Brits soften when it comes to issues that span countries and continents. The only policy area that commands a clear majority for the EU taking charge is “tackling climate change”, but two more areas — “the rise of Asia” and “terrorism and international crime” — show a fairly even split in opinion.

Conversely, when a proposal would be likely to negatively affect a particular country, a significant percentage of support for action at the EU level swiftly evaporates. Less than a third of Germans would like to make it easier for countries to borrow from the ECB, and fewer than one in five support the idea of debt-mutualisation through Eurobonds. Just as one would expect, the Italians are the most enthusiastic endorsers of these ideas, with the French somewhere in the middle.

Even in the most pro-EU countries people still believe the nation state should remain responsible for certain areas. The report identifies “three key areas of power and statecraft” where none of the countries polled had a majority in favour of passing control to Brussels. People also believe the EU lacks democratic legitimacy, with all countries showing majority support for both a referendum to decide their own relationship with the EU, and giving other countries the right to leave the EU if that is what their voters choose.

The explanation for this hard-headed endorsement of the EU principally as a means to an end, rarely as an end in itself, can be found in the section of the raw polling data covering identity. Only a quarter of Germans polled said they were mainly “European” rather than “German”, with France and Italy reporting lower figures still (14% and 17% respectively) and all the other countries surveyed in single figures. Bluntly, there is not yet a European ‘demos’.

This is, on one level, reassuring news for eurosceptics. Most of our fellow Europeans are not blind adherents to a religion of EU integration, determined to forge ahead in building a powerful new European state and leaving poor sceptical Britain to choose between exclusion and subsumption.

Yet this poll raises an altogether more challenging problem for those of us who would like Europe to be free of the EU; there is clearly an appetite for some of the things the EU is seen to offer. Until we can convincingly describe an alternative which will meet Europeans’ desire for a means of cooperation and a force for responsible governance, then the European Union will continue to enjoy popular support across the continent.

Why the Left may want to think twice before blaming the riots on ‘cuts’

I have only been active on Twitter for about 24 hours and already I find myself starting a blog – something I had no intention of doing a couple of days ago. It may be partly a knee-jerk, contrarian response to the current moral panic about social media, but mostly it’s because it turns out that 140 characters doesn’t always allow one to express an idea in its entirety.

But that’s enough technological insights; on to the politics.

Given the near universal public mood of anger and revulsion, only the most Talibanesque of Lefties are still publicly arguing that anger at ‘Government cuts’ is to blame for the riots and looting of the last week. However, according to YouGov (PDF file), it is still a significant strand of opinion on the Left, even if the public references to it are now more oblique and suffixed with the mandatory “but to explain is not to excuse”.

Suppose, though, that we accept a reduction in taxpayer-funded spending in deprived areas has indeed increased the inhabitants’ feeling of hopelessness and disengagement from society beyond its flashpoint? To do so is to acknowledge that large parts of London are now welfare-addicted ghettos, where people’s sense of hope and engagement with society comes solely from an expectation of continued payments and services funded from the public purse.

Blaming the riots on spending cuts: the Left’s unintentional ‘mea culpa’.

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