As of this posting please note President Obama's backtracking on the protectionist proposals in the current bailout bill due to pressure from the 'world.' http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20090130/america_buy_090130/20090130?hub=TopStories
See also for background this blog's post from June 8, 2008, entitled "Republic v. Democracy."
02 Feb 2009
The peoples of Europe have finally discovered what they signed up to. I do mean "peoples" (plural) because however much political elites may deceive themselves, the populations of the member states of the EU are culturally, historically and economically separate and distinct. And a significant proportion of them are getting very, very angry.
What the strikers at the Lindsey oil refinery (and their brother supporters in Nottinghamshire and Kent) have discovered is the real meaning of the fine print in those treaties, and the significance of those European court judgments whose interpretation they left to EU obsessives: it is now illegal – illegal – for the government of an EU country to put the needs and concerns of its own population first. It would, for example, be against European law to do what Frank Field has sensibly suggested and reintroduce a system of "work permits" for EU nationals who wished to apply for jobs here.
Meanwhile, demonstrators in Paris and the recalcitrant electorate in Germany are waking up to the consequences of what two generations of European ideologues have thrust upon them: the burden not just of their own economic problems but also the obligation to accept the consequences of their neighbours' debts and failures. Each country is true to its own history in the way it expresses its rage: in France, they take to the streets and throw things at the police, in Germany they threaten the stability of the coalition government, and here, we revive the tradition of wildcat strikes.
But the response from the EU political class is the same to all of these varied manifestations of resistance. Those who protest are being smeared with accusations of foolhardy protectionism or racist nationalism when they are not (not yet, anyway) guilty of either. It is not purblind nationalism, let alone racism, to resent the importation of cheap labour en masse when its conditions of employment (transport and accommodation provided, as seems to be the case at Lindsey) allow it to compete unfairly with indigenous workers. The drafting in of low-wage work gangs has always been seen as unjust: exploitative of the foreign workers, and destructive of the social cohesion of existing communities which, incidentally, is something about which the Tories say they are much exercised. So can the protesters expect their support?
The US had a rule during its great period of immigration in the early years of the last century, that no one could enter the country with a pre-arranged job. This was designed precisely to prevent the unfairness and disruptive effect of the wholesale import of cheap labour. An individual travelling to seek work, prepared to take his chances in fair competition with local workers is one thing: the organised recruitment of people from the poorest regions of the poorest countries in Europe in order to reduce employers' wage costs in the more prosperous ones, is something else altogether.
Nor is it "protectionism" to argue that competition for employment should take place within a context of social responsibility and respect for the fabric of communities. Genuine protectionism is setting up barriers to free trade: this is what Barack Obama is doing when he forbids the importation of foreign materials such as British steel, and urges his countrymen to restrict their purchases of goods not manufactured in the US ("Buy America!") I eagerly await the condemnation of his proposal for US economic isolationism from all those European leaders who were so anxious to see him elected.
Free trade in goods, as opposed to unlimited open borders for transient labour, is absolutely essential to the recovery of the global economy (and for that matter, to the relief of poverty in the developing world). I agree with those who fear that the US under President Obama may be about to do what it did under Franklin Roosevelt, whose protectionism and hard-nosed refusal to make concessions to international needs condemned the world to a depression (followed by a war). But what the British strikers are demanding is not the same at all, and if their complaints are caricatured or defamed, the price in social disorder could be hideous. It is not an exaggeration to say that this could be the moment of justifiable anger that neo-fascist agitators have been waiting to exploit.
The protesters are simply demanding what they thought – what all free people have been taught to think since the 18th-century enlightenment – was their birthright. That is to say, for the basic principle of modern democracy: the understanding between the state and its people that the proper function of a government is to represent the interests of those who elected it. And to be fair to both presidents, Obama and Roosevelt, this assumption is so deeply grounded in the American psyche that it is almost inconceivable for any US administration not to abide by it quite literally.
In the grand abstract terms of the enlightenment, the legitimacy of government derives from the consent of the governed, and therefore no government should have the right to hand over its authority to some external body which is not democratically accountable to its own people. So when the framers of the EU arranged for the nations of Europe to do exactly that, they were repudiating the two centuries old political struggle for the rights and liberties of ordinary citizens, of government "of the people, by the people and for the people". It has always been my view that this was a quite conscious decision by the EU founders who, in the wake of two world wars, came to believe that the infamous national crimes of the 20th century could be traced directly to the democratic revolutions of the 18th century, and that the only long-term solution to this was to replace democracy with oligarchy.
But there it is. And here we are, with a generation of European political leaders who almost all accept the terms in which their predecessors gave away the most important principle of that great democratic pact between a free people and its government. While times were good and there was enough prosperity to keep everybody distracted and happy, the loss went almost unnoticed except by a few persistent and despairing critics. Well, not any more. The American government may be committing itself to a policy that is economically unsound and even irresponsible, but its insistence on maintaining the compact with its own voters – on putting their concerns first – will at least ensure that democracy will survive there. I am not at all sure that will be true in Europe.