How the European Union was Saved
A momentary shudder was all there was to indicate that the pilot had made a decision. Brussels was almost an hour away and there was no telling what might happen next. He increased the rate of descent and called up Basle. The senior stewardess had opened the cockpit door quietly, but as soon as he felt her leaning gently on the back of his seat he could hear that something was wrong. He nodded to the other pilot – “Maria, go and take a look please.” The stewardess waited with the captain and then Maria was back. “It’s bad.” The young woman turned into her seat and fastened the safety belt. “It was the French and the Germans – then the others joined in.”
They were returning from Turkey, the first high-level delegation sent to court a potential new member – self-sufficient, disciplined and a potential advocate in the east. They had been turned down, sent away with their tails between their legs. The French were sulking and the Germans were angry. One Frenchman oozed superiority– Sorbonne and the hautes écoles. He had pursed his lips and blown a French raspberry, quieter, more subtle than its British cousin, but a German had noticed.
It was a Friday and they were taken into custody to appear in court after the weekend. There were frantic phone calls to Berne but by tea-time that Monday they had begun short prison sentences. Throughout Europe the popular press led the celebrations and for once there was a feeling that Brussels had received just desserts at last. “Cut down to size,” shouted one headline. The social networks were even noisier.
Not many miles away a man leaned for a moment with his elbow set against a map that someone had pinned on the wall of a cowshed, somewhere near the centre of the great continent. They had arrived by boat, three of them, on a paddle steamer that had conveyed them smoothly across the water between the four forests. They walked up the path where damp autumn leaves lay underfoot, and into the cowshed that had clearly been occupied that summer. The sweet smell of cattle remained but the wetness of the floors had dried and somehow the men seemed at home there in their dark suits. Away from the door, Hans was waiting for them in the gloom, sitting on an old milking stool that he had lifted down from behind the door. He had opened his lap-top and was engrossed in some matter. Then he raised his head and nodded a greeting.
It was Klaus, the politician – minister of economic affairs- who spoke first.
“Well, the British don’t seem to want us involved at all. That Lord Owen and his plan – there –it’s on page nine of The Times. He was a socialist foreign minister – and there’s not a mention of this country. Look Hans, just move your elbow will you– there, we’re just a blue space on the English map.”
“Yes, but they’re part of the fund.” Klaus thought for a moment. “Perhaps it’s a ruse, you know, a trick to keep all this under wraps.”
Next door in the barn a goat bleated. Somehow it had wandered in and now found itself separated from its fellows. Outside the mountainside seemed bare without its summer cows, as if the animals had to be kept away from this conversation. The goat bleated again, more persistent now, as if it wanted to have a say. Marcel, the tallest of their group got up from the bale of hay on which he had been sitting and waved the creature towards the door. The goat ignored him and the others got to their feet. For several minutes the goat resisted their attempts to capture it and then stood at one end of the cowshed, waiting to see whether they still wanted to play this game. Then, when it realised that they had lost interest, it turned and trotted out through a low doorway. Marcel followed and they heard him shouting at the goat. As it scuttled away its final bleat reached them, then, as he returned, Marcel caught his head on the doorframe and swore. He stood there in front of them, picking angrily at the leaves of hay that stuck to his suit.
“So, we have our backers and our fund and now we have the EU asking us to arbitrate.”
“Couldn’t be neater.”
“How will we tell them the good news?”
“Part of the arbitration. We agree to help out, then discover global funding, channelled via this forum. Then we take control of the Eurozone. They’ll bite our hand off. None of them want the responsibility of it but none of them dare bail out.”
Max nodded. “He’s right. They can’t run it themselves.”
“What if there’s a call for a referendum?”
“We can get round that, make it part of the deal. The bail-out has to be ratified by each country in a referendum, and any further changes have to be put to the people. That’s the key thing.”
The others nodded. Outside, the goat had returned and called to them. Hans looked at his watch.
“That’s it then gentlemen, draw up and circulate the paperwork. Then I’ll get my people to set up a meeting.”
With that he returned his papers carefully to his brief case and got to his feet.
“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have a really important meeting later this evening and I must be on my way.” By the doorway he paused and leant against the rough wood of the doorway. “But thank you for inviting me. “You know,” he paused again, then looked across at the others who were closing their briefcases. “You know, I shall miss these meetings.”
The steamer called to them across the lake and the goat followed them down to the landing place, as if it was hoping to learn something more from its new friends. As they boarded the steamer it stood and watched them move away, like someone who had something else it had meant to tell them.
Not many years before, there had been another meeting at which the Eurozone had come under scrutiny, in a barber’s shop, tucked away behind the post office in Gstaad. It was a slow meeting, with three nations represented. The owner of the shop stood over a local farmer with his scissors and mouth working simultaneously, a skilled practitioner of his art, and managed the conversation. From time to time he switched from German to French so that the other customer, an English teacher, could follow. Sometimes this English teacher lapsed into Italian, speaking directly to the man who was cutting his hair. It was January 2000. What, they wanted to know, what was this new Euro all about?
Very soon it was clear, at least to these four men, sitting and standing in the gloom of a winter day. The Italians hoped to gain, the British feared further involvement with continental adventures and the Swiss, well the Swiss were just watching the neighbours; most Swiss shopkeepers had already priced their goods in Euros as well as francs. Outside in the streets circular blue stickers on lamp posts and doorways reminded them of their seven hundred years of independence. Inside the owner of the shop explained, first in French and then in German, about a time when there was a falling out between the French speakers in the west of the country and their German-speaking compatriots in the east.
Fortunately, before much damage had been done, they had looked over each other’s shoulders; to the north Bismark was creating a new Germany, to the south Garibaldi was unifying the Italian states and in the west Napoleon III was re-organising post-revolutionary France. Further civil strife would be an invitation to neighbours to intervene and dismemberment of the country would surely have followed. So, peace broke out in Switzerland before the neighbours could act to protect their particular friends across the border.
No–one in the room believed that this new super-state would work; yet again, surely, their neighbours would fall out. What would happen then, how would Switzerland trade with neighbours who were in trouble?
The Englishman thought he might have the answer. His hosts, he knew, would not dream of interfering in the affairs of their neighbours, but out-sourcing, that was another matter. The others did not follow until he explained that the EU would have to out-source the running of itself. The Swiss would have no trouble taking this on, indeed they were best placed to do this. They were trusted as intermediaries by the international community and could lay their hands on a group of suitable accountants and lawyers. For a very reasonable percentage they could save the European Union from its own bureaucracy.
There was a pause while the Englishman’s French was translated into German.
“Why,” asked the other customer, “why should the European Union want to out-source its own bureaucracy when that bureaucracy is so much at the heart of its very existence?”
For the time being there was to be no answer.
Now it was really simple; Europe, desperate for this support, this global fund that the Swiss had put together, would hold a referendum in each of its constituent states. It was true; the Swiss had no desire to run other countries. However, if they were to involve themselves at all, they would expect their neighbours to consult the citizenry in just the same way that Switzerland did. It was a simple question: would the people of the European Union prefer a neutral Swiss consortium to run the Eurozone or would they be content to leave matters in the hands of the governments of the countries concerned and vote no, or non, or nein, or não?
The result of course was a foregone conclusion. It was announced at the end of that year’s Eurovision Song Contest which just happened to be hosted in Switzerland. Suddenly there was Peter Snow, without his swingometer, announcing that the lights were coming on all over Europe. And there they were, a steady winking of green lights all over the continent.
“Only one of these countries has to vote no, only one red light has to appear anywhere in Europe and the deal is off.”
Somewhere to the south a red light came on, but it was extinguished immediately and a green light took its place. Peter Snow shook his head.
“It’s a worrying night for Europe, Ladies and Gentlemen. No one wants to see any uncertainty now, now that Europe has come so far.”
Two more lights flickered then turned green.
“Thank goodness for that.” Now there was to be no pretence at any kind of neutrality and Peter Snow’s arm swept triumphantly across the stage.
“To our panel of experts.”
And so it came about that across Europe the trains ran on time, and medical services were properly funded and, despite the warnings, we were not bored, for we had a new toy to play with and it was such fun. Across Europe groups of busy-bodies and God-botherers and single issue fanatics and friends of the lesser spotted hedgehog began collecting signatures in the hope of calling a referendum on whatever it was they wished to impose upon the rest of us. And as the self-importance of the EU declined, and as its largess dried up, the blue banner and its yellow stars were not missed. Occasionally, for really large projects, it was replaced by the white cross on its red background and travellers between Europe and China could follow the line of a new railway that was taking shape.
And from then on the same flag appeared on the front cover of the EU’s accounts which, at last, we had come to expect at the end of each financial year.
How the European Union was Saved first appeared in Mersea Life