Posts Tagged EU
Under pressure to take bold steps to avert an economic meltdown the European Union is in danger of sleepwalking into a political union that might save the euro in the short-term but could lead to the EU’s collapse in the long-term.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already come out in favour of political union – as have the foreign ministers of 10 EU states. The presidents of the European commission, council and central bank have also called for much tighter EU control over national taxes, budgets and economic policies. Even British premier David Cameron believes in an ever closer union of eurozone states – although safe in the knowledge that the UK will never take part in it.
To a certain extent, calls for a political union are both logical and predictable. Logical because monetary union without a real economic union was always a non-starter. And predictable because when faced with a crisis, the default position of most EU leaders is always ‘more Europe.’
The fundamental problem is there is little desire for political union from the peoples of Europe and moves towards EU control over taxes, budgets and other core state competences could split the union asunder.
In a Pew Research Center poll published last month, only one-third of respondents in the eight countries surveyed believed European economic integration had strengthened their country’s economy. And in another study carried out by YouGov-Cambridge in March, 68% of Germans, 70% of French and 89% said that tax rates and national budgets should be controlled by national governments, not by the EU.
Giving unelected officials in Brussels, rather then elected politicians in capitals, the power to decide tax levels and national budgets hardly seems the most sensible way of bringing the EU closer to its citizens. Neither is it consistent with the democratic system Europe prides itself on and so energetically tries to export to the rest of the world. “Elected representatives must…retain the ability to keep control of fundamental budgetary decisions,” German Constitutional Court President Andreas Vosskuhle said in March, adding: “It would be tragic and fatal if we were to lose democracy on the road to saving the euro and to more integration.”
Aside from widening Europe’s democratic deficit, there are two grave risks with moving towards economic and political union. The first is that governments and electorates will be unwilling to accept the loss of sovereignty this entails. Will, for example, governments slash health and education spending in order to comply with debt diktats from Brussels – even if that runs counter to the wishes of voters? Will taxpayers in richer states willingly part with large chunks of their hard-earned money to subsidise poorer parts of the union they have little in common with? And will prime ministers agree to send their sons and daughters to fight for the EU if they are opposed to a war sanctioned in the Union’s name by the majority?
There is already plenty of evidence from the current financial crisis to suggest that governments are loath to comply with painful policies they have signed up to. Almost the first act of Spanish premier Mariano Rajoy was to tell the Commission he had no intention of meeting the debt cuts agreed in Brussels. And when Economics Commissioner Olli Rehn asked the Belgian government in January to slash €1.2-2 billion in spending or face the prospect of hefty fines, the response of Socialist minister Paul Magnette was “Who knows Olli Rehn? Who knows this man’s face?”
The second great risk with political union is that it will tear apart the EU. As countries like Britain, Denmark, Sweden and half a dozen central European countries will remain outside the federal eurozone through choice or necessity, the European Union will cease to be a union in anything but name. Some may rejoice at the prospect of ridding the EU of its most skeptical members. But a smaller European grouping without Britain and others will inevitably be a weaker actor globally and poorer economically.
At the end of the recent G20 summit in Mexico U.S. President Barack Obama confidently predicted: “Europe is moving towards further integration rather than break-up.” In fact, it is precisely further integration on the scale envisioned by Merkel and co. that will lead to the break-up of the union.
From the Austro-Hungarian empire to the Soviet Union, history is littered with examples of artificial political constructs that have come unglued because of overstretch. The dilemma for the EU is that without more integration the euro will fail and with it the 27-member club risks splintering.
The obvious solution would be to admit the euro was an ill-conceived project that has no popular legitimacy, has created division not unity and brought penury not prosperity to many. A looser club of sovereign nations – as the EU has been for most of its history – would disappoint the dwindling band of EU federalists but at least preserve some of the big benefits the Union has brought over the last 65 years.
Of course, European leaders would never agree to this because scrapping the euro would entail too much loss of face. The EU also doesn’t possess a reverse gear. And so, like a cruise ship heading towards an iceberg, it braces itself for a collision with the captain shouting ‘full steam ahead.’
The European Union is losing the battle for the hearts and minds of its citizens. Public support for the EU is falling, European values are under attack, many of the EU’s biggest projects – the euro, enlargement, Schengen – are under threat and voters are turning in droves to populist parties that are the antithesis of the European dream.
Unfortunately, supporters of further EU integration often don’t help their cause by lacking fresh ideas for the bloc’s future, failing to match words with deeds and being resistant to change, prickly about criticism and contemptuous of the people on whose support the EU project depends. So here are 10 tips for getting the Union back on track from a critical friend of the EU who has worked inside the Belgeway for the last two decades.
1. Don’t mention the war
The European Union is, first and foremost, a peace project aimed at banishing the spectre of the war from the continent. It has largely achieved this goal in western Europe, to the extent that the idea of France and Germany fighting each other again is unthinkable. Instead of harping on about the Second World War – which ended 67 years ago – pro-Europeans need to develop a new central narrative for the Union that is fit for the 21st century and resonates with a generation whose grandparents were born after 1945.
2. What’s the story?
EU officials are often excellent at answering detailed questions about their policy briefs but hopeless at grappling with more existential issues such as: What is the European Union for? What value-added does it bring? What are the core beliefs that bind its people together? Most Europeans take peace, free trade, open borders and a single currency for granted. So what is the EU’s next big idea? Instead of looking to past gains, the EU should be about creating a leaner, keener and greener Europe based on a highly skilled and educated workforce and a low-carbon, cutting-edge economy. It should also be more bullish about enlargement – the EU’s biggest success story – and be more muscular on the world stage.
3. Be radical
EU drum-bangers tend to be terribly conservative and more concerned at amassing further powers than questioning whether they are needed in the first place. Instead of feeling obliged to defend silly policies and useless institutions, they should adopt a more radical and more ruthless approach. Do we honestly need the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee – not to mention the plethora of other agencies that have mushroomed in recent years? Does it still make sense for the EU to spend over a third of its budget subsidising the five percent of Europeans who till the land? Is pumping tens of billions of euros a year to poor countries and regions to build motorways and sewage plants the sanest way to build world-class modern economies? A new narrative requires new policies, new institutions and new budget priorities.
4. Accept criticism
The EU has never been very good at accepting criticism or admitting mistakes. “Criticism of the EU is almost considered a heresy,” said former Europe Minister Denis MacShane. “Its like going to see the Pope and saying ‘I might be a protestant your holiness.’” Instead of endlessly repeating pro-EU mantras, supporters of the European project should create a culture of debate by listening to the people and entering into an honest dialogue with them. They should also occasionally admit they are wrong – on the euro and the admission of a divided Cyprus for example – and have the humility to apologise.
5. Emit less hot air
In the middle of one of the least smart, inclusive and sustainable urban landscapes in Europe – the EU area of Brussels – I recently saw a banner draped across the European Commission’s Charlemagne building advertising a symposium on “paving the way for smart inclusive and sustainable cities.” A small vignette maybe but symptomatic of the mismatch between the EU’s lofty aims and less prosaic reality that reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Hollow Men:’ “Between the idea/And the Reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the shadow.” The EU should beware of raising expectations that it cannot meet – such as its pretension of having a truly common foreign and security policy or its risible new millennium ambition of becoming the world’s most competitive economy by 2010. Sometimes, it is better to have limited aims – like cutting roaming charges – but actually achieve them.
6. More Europe, less EU
The problem with many Euro-cheerleaders is that they constantly confuse the EU (a political construct with 27 states) with Europe (a continent with almost 50 countries). It is quite possible to dislike – or feel no affinity – with the former whilst feeling deeply attached to the latter. Instead of obsessing about passing new laws, adopting new treaties and creating new institutions, fans of the EU would be better off trying to foster a European spirit among people. As former Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek said: “We have Europe. Now we need Europeans.”
7. Value your values
The values that are supposed to define Europe – peace, tolerance, diversity, solidarity, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights – are often flouted by those states that are the keenest on pushing for greater EU integration. It is difficult to see how opposing Turkey’s EU entry (as France and Austria do) or refusing to back the use of force against a murderous dictator (as Germany did during the Libya conflict) or calling for more EU laws while continuously flouting existing ones (as Belgium and Italy do) tally with the Union’s core values. The EU needs to be more consistent, more united and more robust standing up for its values – even if that means annoying the Chinese and Russians.
8. Don’t forget the people
The EU spends tens of millions of euros a year promoting democracy around the world, yet its own decision-making structures are hardly the most shining example of people-power. The Commission, which has the sole power to propose new laws, is not elected and its president has no popular mandate. The head of the European Council is appointed in a similar manner to the Pope. And most decisions in the Council of the EU are made by ambassadors before they reach the desks of ministers. So despite the furious denials of eurocrats, the EU does have a democratic deficit that is opening up a massive chasm between rulers and ruled. The Eurozone crisis has widened this divide. Much to the delight of officials in Brussels, technocrats have replaced elected politicians in Greece and Italy. And the Commission has amassed further powers over national budgetary decisions that are normally the prerogative of elected parliaments. No wonder the president of the German constitutional court recently remarked: “It would be tragic and fatal if we were to lose democracy on the road to saving the euro and to more integration.”
9. Create an EU 2.0 from the bottom up
The EU has been an elitist project since its inception. This mattered little when the Union was primarily a trade club. But now that it has taken on many of the trappings of nation state – a single currency, border protection, increasing control over budgets and the ambition to raise its own taxes – its policies have a much greater impact on the lives of ordinary citizens. Without their support and involvement the EU will wither like a vine starved of water. This means more democracy – at the very least elected European Council and Commission presidents – but also more efforts to engage with Europeans at their level and using their language.
10. Just connect
The EU has traditionally been terrible at communicating. It confuses information with propaganda, is obsessed with process rather than results and is incapable of communicating in language ordinary people understand. If the EU – and its backers – want to connect with citizens it needs to explain its policies using simple, clear language. But above all it has to show how it changes people’s lives for the better. If the EU can convince hard-working taxpayers in Milan, Manchester or Munich that it puts more money in their pockets, makes their jobs, streets and pensions more secure and provides better schools and hospitals for them and their families then it will succeed. If it doesn’t it will creak, crack and ultimately collapse.
The European Parliament is used to scoring own-goals. But even by its standards, the assembly’s call last week for the EU flag to be flown at major sporting events and for the European emblem to grace athletes’ shirts was the political equivalent of a defender back-heeling the ball into his own net.
Admittedly, parliament’s report on the European dimension of sport contains plenty of worthy calls for member states to devote a greater share of their budget to sports and for racism, violence and corruption in sport to be rooted out. But as the EU has few competences in the sports arena, this amounts to little more than meaningless political posturing.
Parliament insists the European flag would be displayed alongside national symbols on athletes’ shirts and would be entirely voluntary. What could possibly be wrong with that? Quite a lot actually.
As I argue in the latest edition of Foreign Policy Magazine, there is no such thing as a European people and top-down attempts at moulding one are likely to end in failure.
In opinion polls voters identify themselves much more with their nation state than with Europe. As former European Commissioner Chris Patten has said: “The nation is alive and well and more potent than ever in some respects. It is the largest unit, perhaps, to which people will willingly accord emotional allegiance.”
In fact, even the nation is too big for many people to associate with. Europe has 20 more countries than in 1988 due to the splintering of countries like the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and others. And there will be more on the way if Belgium, Spain or Britain shatter.
In September the New York Times ran a front-page article about plans to have a British soccer team representing the UK in the London Olympics this year. Quite logical, one might think. Except there is no such thing. Instead we have Welsh, English, Scottish and Northern Irish teams and all but the English are against joining Team GB. Said the head of the Scottish football federation – “We need to protect our identity and we have no interest in taking part.” The Welsh former goalkeeper Neville Southall asked: “What flag are they going to put up if Team GB win the football? The Union Jack? Well it’s not my flag; my flag’s a dragon.”
The journalist helpfully pointed out that “It is sometimes hard for outsiders to comprehend how deeply tribal Britain is, and how resistant to the idea that there is a unifying notion of Britishness.”
Not just Britain. In Belgium there is such a vicious division between Flanders and Wallonia that the country’s football association recently voted to divide national amateur leagues along linguistic lines.
Call me tribal, but despite living in Belgium for almost 20 years I am Welsh and proud of it. The symbols I identify with are the dragon, the leek and the daffodil, not a flag designed by a committee of experts half a century ago. When our rugby team beat Ireland on Saturday I jumped for joy like most of my compatriots. The pleasure of beating our opponents – because that is what sport is largely about – would not have been any different if the European flag had been fluttering above the Aviva stadium in Dublin or if the players had worn the 12 stars on their shirts. Its presence would simply have been an irrelevance.
This is not to deny that one can have multiple identities. Many Europeans are Catalan, Spanish and European. Others are Muslim and French. But identities cannot be artificially created – they are forged early on and never go away. As the Jesuits’ used to say: ‘Give me a child until he’s seven and I will give you the man.’
Europeans are slowly coming together after centuries of division – and that is a good thing. Most Europeans care more about the result of the Eurovision Song Contest and the Champions League final than the European Parliament elections. Thanks to no-frills airlines like Ryanair and easyJet, Europeans are criss-crossing the continent like never before. And Brits with no great fondness for the EU cheer on French, Spanish and Portuguese soccer stars playing for their ‘local’ clubs and afterwards head to the pub to drink Belgian and German lagers.
Much of the credit for this is due to the EU for scrapping national airline monopolies, granting Europeans the right to live and work in any member state and ending quotas on foreign soccer players – although, perversely, parliament’s report says that an “over-dependence on the transfer of players can undermine sporting values.” But ultimately Europe will not be built by Brussels edicts but European citizens – whether border-hopping footballers like Cristiano Ronaldo, superstar DJs like David Guetta or brash entrepreneurs like Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary.
In his magisterial book ‘In Europe,’ the Dutch author Geert Mak writes: “People need stories in order to grasp the inexplicable, to cope with their fate. The individual nation, with its common language and shared imagery can always forge these experiences into one great cohesive story. But Europe cannot do that. Unlike the United States it still has no common story.”
There are huge differences between states in America but at the end of the day Americans feel American and are proud of the fact. Their hearts beat faster when they sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ or watch their athletes winning gold medals in Olympics. Most know their constitution and roughly how their political system works. They speak the same language and are obsessed by the same sports.
The European Union, on the other hand, has created common institutions, laws and even a currency. It has created all the symbols of a nation state – a passport nobody swears allegiance to, an anthem nobody knows and a flag that is only voluntarily waved at the Ryder Cup golf championships between the US and Europe. What it lacks is a people who share a common culture, language or narrative – or at the very least are able to identify with the political construct that has been created in their name. “We have Europe. Now we need Europeans,” was how former Polish foreign minister Bronislaw Geremek put it.
The problem is you cannot manufacture Europeans like toy soldiers. It takes time for a people to evolve and imposing artificial political bodies on disparate peoples has ended in failure or disaster throughout history.
On Friday I was in Vienna to pick up an Erasmus EuroMedia Award for an e-magazine I edit on EU communications issues. It’s called Opinion Corner and is published by Mostra, a Brussels-based communications agency.
The latest edition of the magazine focuses on how the rest of the world views the EU and features interviews with Balkan musician Goran Bregovic, branding guru Simon Anholt and journalists, politicians and analysts in Moscow, Istanbul, Ankara, Washington DC, Brussels and London. We also carried out street interviews in Burkina Faso, Mexico, China and Egypt to find out what ordinary people make of the EU.
It may come as a surprise to Europeans – many of whom are lukewarm about the EU project and gloomy about its future prospects – to learn that the European Union is viewed in an overwhelmingly positive light across the globe.
In a poll carried out by Globescan for the BBC World Service in April 2010, citizens in all but two of the 28 countries surveyed said they had a mainly positive opinion about the EU’s influence in the world. Only Germany was judged more benignly in the poll, with 53% of respondents saying the EU had a ‘positive’ and 18% saying it had a ‘negative’ influence in the world.
A more recent poll conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2009 confirms the EU’s popularity worldwide – although public opinion is not as positive as the Globescan survey. Majorities or pluralities in 18 of the 25 countries surveyed said they had a favourable view of the European Union.
Before EU public relations folk crack open the champagne, they should remember that:
- This enthusiasm is coupled with widespread ignorance about what the European Union is and does.
- Much of the fuzzy feeling towards the EU is due to the fact that people see it as synonymous with the continent of Europe – which evokes images of wealth, beauty, culture and history.
- Support for the EU is haemorrhaging in the Wider Middle East. The five countries that view the Union most unfavourably – Pakistan, Egypt, Palestine, Turkey and Jordan – are all predominantly Muslim countries. In Pakistan, only nine percent of respondents said they had a positive opinion of the Union, according to the 2009 Pew poll. 72% of Jordanians and 57% of Palestinians said they viewed the EU unfavourably, despite the billions of dollars Brussels has pumped into the West Bank.
Foreign policy experts we interviewed in Washington DC, Moscow, London, Brussels and Turkey also had a much dimmer view of the EU than citizens. Among the criticisms levelled at the bloc are that it is obsessed by internal issues, projects a weak and ineffectual image, fails to live up to its high ideals and is incapable of communicating what it actually stands for. “The ability of the EU to project itself as a brand is quite pitiful,” says Martin Walker, Senior Director of the Global Business Policy Council.
There was also a quasi-unanimous view that the Lisbon treaty has created more, not less confusion and that the appointments of EU president Herman Van Rompuy and foreign policy chief Cathy Ashton – two “unknown, uninspriring entities” according to the European Policy Centre’s Shada Islam – was a missed opportunity for the EU to raise its international profile. “The hope was that Lisbon would make the EU role in the world clearer,” says Tomas Valasek of the Centre for European Reform in London. “That hasn’t happened.”
The EU still remains a good global brand. It is viewed positively by most citizens in most states. It is envied for its relative peace and prosperity and provides a model for regions seeking closer economic integration. Unlike Russia, China and the United States, it is viewed as a non-threatening actor on the international stage.
However, in recent years, the EU’s image has taken something of a knock as a result of the navel-gazing leading to the adoption of the Lisbon treaty and the confusion following it, the global financial crisis, Greece’s economic meltdown – and the EU’s belated attempts to rescue it – and the Union’s continued inability to punch its weight on the world stage. This lack of confidence is reflected in opinion polls, with the latest survey by Globescan showing a four-point drop in positive views towards the EU.
So what can be done to polish up the EU’s image abroad and improve the way it conducts public diplomacy? As the European diplomatic corps sets up shop, the experts we spoke to offered the following advice:
- Don’t be afraid to take hard decisions and use hard power. Says Valasek: “Foreign Policy is not a Eurovision Song Contest.”
- Align brand EU (boring, bureaucratic) much more closely with brand Europe (beautiful, buzzing.)
- Focus less on process and more on action.
- Communicate better abroad – send diplomats abroad who can engage with locals not just talk tariffs and quotas.
Ultimately the EU will be judged around the world for what it achieves, rather than how it communicates. But until the European Union learns to engage with citizens in language they can understand and relate to, few people will ever know what it does and stands for.
I have spent most of the week in Belgrade media training officials from assorted ministries and regional authorities. Of course, slick communications skills are no substitute for sound policies. But if ever there was a European country in need of better PR it is Serbia.
Tell anyone you’re going to this land-locked state and they will warn you to ‘be careful’ – as if it was still at war. In most people’s minds the former Yugoslav republic conjures up images of Balkan mayhem, riotous music and former dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who was ousted 10 years ago this month. One ministry official told me that on a recent visit to the United States a woman asked her what country she was from. When she said ‘Serbia’ the American replied: “I’m so sorry.”
Some of Serbia’s lousy PR is self-inflicted. It did cause havoc in the Balkans in the 1990s. It could have done more to bring alleged war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to justice. And its refusal to accept Kosovo’s independence – supported by an overwhelming majority of Kosovars – is seen by many as a refusal to accept reality.
Sunday’s bloody scuffles between neo-fascist thugs and police on the margins of Belgrade’s first gay pride parade in almost a decade will have reinforced many people’s beliefs that this volatile corner of south-east Europe is simply not ready for EU membership. The cancellation of a football match between Italy and Serbia Tuesday due to loutish behaviour by Serb hooligans has also not helped matters. “This is the Balkans, not Europe,” explained my taxi driver apologetically after talking at length about the incidents.
Well, yes and no. Serbia certainly is a Balkan country – and very proud of it. A T-shirt for sale on the Kneza Mihailova drag – Belgrade’s Ramblas – proclaims: “Fuck Coke, Fuck Pizza, We drink Slivovice.” On a street nicknamed ‘silicon valley’ peroxide women with too much make-up and too little clothes parade themselves in front of guys with bulging wallets and biceps. Turbo folk blasts out of the riverside barge clubs and mournful gypsy music from the tourist traps on Skadarska Street. Everywhere there is the same sweet smell of sweat, soot and sausages you find across this corner of Europe. Horns are beeped, arms are waved and decisions are delayed. “We still have a Turkish mentality,” says one woman, referring to the centuries of Ottoman occupation.
Serbia’s recent past has also cemented the idea that this country will be forever revolting, splintering, invading, sulking and scheming. “The Balkans produce more history than they can consume,” said Winston Churchill. In the last 20 years Serbia alone has witnessed conflicts with three of its neighbours, a civil war pitting Serb against Kosovar, NATO bombings – the effects of which are still very visible in downtown Belgrade – international isolation, hyper-inflation, the communist dictatorship of Milosevic, a quiet revolution to oust him, the assassination of its first prime minister and the break-away of Kosovo and Montenegro. “I survived two wars by my mid-twenties, so of course we’re happy to be at peace” my interpreter tells me.
So Serbia is very much part of the Balkans. But it is also a distinctly European country. Belgrade has a very central European feel to it with its grand boulevards, Habsburg buildings, Austro-Hungarian cuisine and pot-pourri mix of peoples. The people look European and act European, spilling out of cafes and clubs, smoking and drinking coffee, heading for trams and metros while arguing about the past. I certainly felt more at home in Belgrade than in Bucharest or Sofia – two existing EU capitals.
As Serbia busies itself for future EU membership – its application was tabled in December and candidate status is expected within a year – it deserves to be embraced by the international community. Hilary Clinton did just that during a visit to Belgrade this week. “The U.S. appreciates Serbia. Not only because of its outstanding history but, what’s more important because of its enormous potential,” said the Secretary of State. “We are absolutely convinced, not only that Serbia can become a member of the EU but also a leader in Europe.”
Of course there are potential roadblocks over the future status of Kosovo and the capture of Mladic. But these should not be insurmountable obstacles and they are much more likely to be solved by a Serbia on route to EU membership than by a country with its back turned to Europe.
I don’t watch much golf but I always make an exception for the Ryder Cup – the biennial tournament that pits Europe against the United States.
Most of the commentary this year has been about the lousy weather – although one wonders what the organisers were expecting when they decided to stage the competition in a river valley at the foot of a barren Welsh mountain in the beginning of October. I am from Swansea, 50 kilometres to the west. It is the wettest city in Britain. Living in Brussels feels positively balmy in comparison.
On one level the Ryder Cup is about a bunch of middle-aged men from one side of the Atlantic trying to put balls in holes in less shots than a bunch of middle-aged men from the other side. But on another, slightly more nerdy level, it makes an absolutely fascinating political spectacle.
For a start the European side has adopted the EU flag as its symbol – conveniently forgetting that almost half the countries of Europe are not are in the Union. Usually the only people you’ll see waving the EU flag voluntarily are young federalists and kids attending the European School in Brussels. But during the Ryder Cup, alongside the occasional Welsh, English or Spanish flag, the dominant symbol is dark blue with 12 gold stars on it. It is everywhere – on adverts, insignia and scoreboards and on players’ sweaters, baseball caps and jackets. The only times I’ve seen more European Union flags emblazoned on more people is on EU electoral observation missions in dodgy countries.
“Europe! Europe! Europe!” hollered fans at the Celtic Manor course outside Newport. OK, it doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” but it is quite staggering nonetheless. Although Wales has benefited mightily from EU largesse it is still in Britain – the EU’s most eurosceptic state.
One of the reasons former French president Charles de Gaulle vetoed UK membership of the then EEC in the 1960s was because he thought Britain would be a Trojan horse for the United States. And most continental Europeans I know still suspect that when push comes to shove Britain will instinctively side with America. They should watch more golf.
Another reason the Ryder Cup is intriguing is because it is the only sporting competition I can think of where Europe and the United States go head to head. Every Olympic Games, the European Commission puts out a rather redundant press release pointing out that EU states collectively win more medals than any other country. The problem is the EU is not a nation state but a collection of 27 of them all playing under different flags.
And so it should be. No one is seriously suggesting that Germany, Spain and England merge their football teams – although England may have more of a chance of winning a major tournament if they did. The UK can’t even manage to field a national rugby or football team, instead splintering into England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
There is nothing wrong with national pride – in sporting arenas or elsewhere. But just occasionally it is comforting to see that sport can unite Europeans as well as divide them. I always giggle when I see English football fans – not renowned for their love of the EU – cheering on ‘local’ teams like Chelsea and Arsenal that are almost entirely composed of European players (itself made possible by an EU ruling.) In terms of incongruity it reminds me of the 1990s when Man Utd fans would fly the French flag at Old Trafford in honour of Eric Cantona.
The Ryder Cup is the only major sporting competition where Europe plays as one and often wins as one – Monday’s narrow victory for the Europeans makes it six out of the last eight for the old continent. I don’t want to labour the political point here – it is just a game of golf after all – but it does add weight to the argument that when Europeans club together they can be world-beaters.