WINSTON Churchill once described Russia as ‘a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’ and today he might well have said the same about the European Union.
Because, nothing is ever quite what it seems in the Alice Through the Looking-glass world of Brussels, where transparency is as rare as hens’ teeth.
Far from being a fraternity of hail fellow well met, the whole edifice is riven with self-interest, Machiavellian infighting and coded language so inscrutable, either its meaning gets lost in translation or the message it conveys depends on whose ears it falls on.
There are, in fact, two EUs: the theoretical club, driven by dreamers with a vision of a United States of Europe, where all citizens are equal and peaceable; then there’s the actual one, where the vested interests of the kingpins – Germany, Britain, France, Italy and, to a lesser extent, Spain – rule the roost and call the shots.
So don’t mess with the German auto industry, literally the engine of its economy. No tinkering, either, with France’s agrarian follies, hence the farce of the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, whereby French farmers get paid absurd sums to play with their boules.
Italy’s fashion sector is similarly ring-fenced and Spain’s pot pourri of industries, ranging from tourism to wine to olive oil to banking and construction, earn it a free pass.
And then there’s Britain, the globe’s financial epicentre, but semi-detached from Europe by the world’s biggest anti-tank ditch and full of idiosyncrasies, like driving on the wrong side of the road.
The EU considers Brits its awkward squad; free-market, anti-protectionists, who demand answers to commonsensical questions snotty Europrats ignore…like why the European Court of Auditors last week refused to sign off Brussels’ accounts for 19th successive time and why there’s a £5.5-billion black hole in this year’s £117-billion spending.
Which is why the latest brouhaha between London and Brussels smacks of pure hypocrisy on the EU rule-makers’ part.
Because the UK chose not to inflict upon itself the masochism of the dysfunctional Euro – along with a paralysed European Central Bank – by injecting cash into its economy via quantative easing (QE), it has emerged from the 2008/9 financial crisis faster and stronger than the Eurozone nations.
Though by no means out of the financial excrement, unemployment in Britain is a fraction of Spanish, French and Italian levels, and the Coalition government – give or take a Lib-Dem – is far more pro-enterprise than anywhere in the still-floundering EU.
That, in itself, should be an object lesson to Brussels in can-do economic competence, not the £1.7-billion penalty imposed on the UK for outperforming its EU partners since 1995.
The surcharge – which factors £7-billion into Britain’s GDP gleaned from the immoral earning of prostitution and drug pushing – comes on top of the country’s net contribution to the EU budget, predicted to be around £10-billion for 2014.
Clearly, ladies of the night and spliff vendors should spend more time off the streets, since their efforts, while welcome in some quarters, aren’t in the national interest.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron is righteously indignant over what’s described in bland, EU-speak as ‘a correction to Britain’s contribution’.
The government of Greece – the Eurozone’s basket case – feels similarly narked, since it must cough up hundreds of millions it hasn’t got to prop up powerhouses like Germany.
In Britain’s case it was given until December 1 to pay or face a £41-million fine, plus punitive interest of £2.3-million a day or 52% per annum on the £1.7-billion.
Never mind Wonga.com, according to one seething Tory MP, such usury would make ‘the most predatory payday loan-shark blush.’
So Chancellor George Osborne was despatched to Brussels on Friday on a damage-limitation mission, after Cameron said he would not pay the ‘completely unacceptable’ bill, warning it would reduce the chances of the UK staying in the EU.
Some kind of iffy creative accountancy has now been cobbled, with Osborne claiming the amount has been reduced by half, interest charges axed and the UK can stage-pay the outstanding £850-million next year.
However, what the waffle doesn’t address is why the UK was saddled with the burden in the first place.
This latest spat comes at a moment when Cameron plans to outline proposals to cap immigration from Europe, possibly by introducing an Australian-style point system to deter benefit-scroungers or demand that migrants have a job offer and, if not, the funds to support themselves for three months until they find work.
It’s an issue that runs straight into another Brussels’ brick wall, but one which Cameron is tailoring to woo Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who desperately wants the UK in the Union and faces her own problems over unfettered immigration.
However, the runes on both contentious matters directly affecting Britain – the ‘correction fee’ and curbing incomers – make unpleasant reading on both sides of the Channel.
While wriggle room may have been found to reduce the price Britain must pay for its success, Merkel is under pressure from Brussels not to compromise on the free movement of peoples, a pillar of EU statism.
This was highlighted by the influential political magazine, Der Spiegel, last week, which claimed Mutti – as Merkel is affectionately known in Germany – was prepared to accept a British bye-bye, the so-called ‘Brexit’ option, from the EU.
However, as I said, much can be lost in the translation. That’s why sources close to the German leader quickly pointed out that she considers Brexit ‘möglich’, which means ‘possible’ and she fears it, because she distrusts the profligate France and wants Britain to remain her partner.
With UKIP’s anti-European mavericks and Conservative Eurosceptics rumbling with discontent, Cameron is stuck between a similar rock and hard place.
Despite promising an in-out referendum on the EU in 2017 if he’s re-elected next May and his own, declared intention to campaign to stay in, the Prime Minister is likely to face a tough job convincing a British electorate increasing hostile to Brussels to trust his judgement.
Rightly, they pose the question: if the EU isn’t for its people, what is it for?