Bursting the Bubble

Between a Portcullis and the Guillotine

11 February 2014 | by

In Brussels, the order of the day is compromise.

In scenes that can sometimes invoke ideas of the grand bargains on Capitol Hill in D.C., the EU 28 Member States need to find agreement. Additionally, seven political groups also need to cobble-together a consensus and finally, nations and parties need to find an [un]happy medium – and so a European law is borne.

Following this crash-course in EU law-making, one might be forgiven for thinking that, needing to reconcile so many “vested interests” in the name of finding the “common European interest”, the political inevitabilities in Europe are all located in a warm, fuzzy, slightly technocratic and above-all, regulatory middle-ground. This is however not true, as many of those reading this article are already painfully aware. From the jeers and screams of the House of Commons to the orderly and well-behaved deputies in the German Bundestag, European styles vary. Crisis-hit Greece was forced to sell the Piraeus, whereas the Danes can afford to butcher a giraffe for public entertainment – again, European styles…

With this in mind, I was quite struck by the trajectory of political events in Europe over the past few days.

First, we heard the proposed “Nexit”. This was the topic de jour before the weekend. Far-right leader and veteran Eurosceptic Geert Wilders called for a Dutch exit from the Union they helped found: “leaving the EU or Nexit will not only restore our national sovereignty but it will also boost the Dutch economy now and in the future,” Mr. Wilders said in The Hague. “It also offers the Netherlands a way out of the crisis … [a] Nexit will create jobs; the income of our citizens and companies will grow.” Yes, it seems there are some in the Netherlands who look with fond-eyes at pulling-up the drawbridge from Europe and the world. Of course, most recall that the Dutch, along with the French, were the ones to kill off the EU’s Constitutional Treaty. But as a founding Member State and a pioneer of the euro, the Dutch have firmly carved themselves a seat at the highest European tables; it is also hard to imagine the founder of global capitalism so willingly slamming down the portcullis, much to the detriment of the Dutch economy.

Second, disturbing on a sleepy Sunday in Brussels was the decision by Swiss voters to re-introduce quotas on EU citizens moving to Switzerland. The poll, which the ‘Yes’ camp won with a margin of 0.03%, can trigger a “guillotine clause”, slicing through the web of over 100 bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland. As opposed to one treaty, or membership of the European Economic Area, Switzerland operates a complex system of agreements with the EU regarding various economic sectors, built up since the late 1990’s. Being cut-off from Europe’s Single Market threatens to undermine Switzerland’s vital finance sector, with many Swiss banks employing thousands of highly qualified professionals from other Member States. The final outcome of this new Swiss-saga remains to be seen, but freedom of movement is a fundamental principle of the European project, with Brussels unlikely to take a favorable line with the Alpine country.

The Netherlands has been at the forefront of European integration since the post-war years, although is not afraid to challenge the Brussels consensus. Switzerland, on the other hand, has fought harder than any other country in Europe to reap the benefits from European integration without any of the costs. What remains true regarding these two very different approaches to “Europe”, whether it is a Dutch portcullis or Swiss guillotine, nationalist and anti-European politics continue to put narrow ideological concerns ahead of the economic prosperity of European (and Swiss) citizens.

What do you think?