May 18, 2014 5:45 pm

Diagnoses of a determined eurosceptic

Roger Bootle’s ‘The Trouble With Europe’ suggests improvements to what he sees a flawed union

The Trouble With Europe, by Roger Bootle (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, £18.99/$29.95)

Jochen Bittner, political editor of Die Zeit, the German newspaper, once observed of the EU that it is capable of prohibiting certain types of lightbulb but incapable of implementing a common energy policy. Roger Bootle would heartily endorse this criticism: the EU has an exasperating habit of being too big on the small issues and too small on the big ones.

For the most part, however, this is where the similarities stop. Mr Bittner and other continental Europeans find fault with the EU but they would not dream of recommending its abolition or their own country’s exit. By contrast, British eurosceptics such as Bootle regard the EU as such a pitiful failure that either it should break up or the UK should get out.

Bootle briskly dismisses the EU: “Its institutions do not work; it is profoundly undemocratic; and its leaders are isolated from ordinary citizens.” In his view, the 28-nation bloc, which next week holds elections to the European Parliament, might once have helped to reconcile France and Germany, and brought former communist countries to the west, but today’s EU stands for “arrogance, incompetence and corruption”.

Bootle, managing director of Capital Economics, a London-based consultancy, is an accomplished economist whose The Trouble With Markets (2009) provided a penetrating analysis of the origins of the financial crisis. Here he asks what has gone wrong with the EU, suggests why necessary reforms are unlikely to happen and maps out a fresh start for UK-EU relations. He writes energetic prose in The Trouble with Europe, and makes some good points, but its arguments suffer from a tendency to exaggeration or self-contradiction.

He growls about “pretensions to statehood” and alleged efforts to shoehorn nations into “an artificial common identity”. But in his more thoughtful passages he acknowledges that the real situation is not so desperate. As he points out, few EU policy makers itch these days to set up a common army or justice system.

For the UK, Bootle proposes an effort at fundamental EU reform that would justify continued membership. But he acknowledges that his desired changes, such as a substantial repatriation of powers to London and an exit from the EU’s single market, are probably unachievable. The UK should therefore quit the EU, sign a trade deal with the other 27 states, seek membership of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement, pursue trade accords with China and others, and push for enhanced ties with Commonwealth countries.

Readers who suspect all this amounts to a stab in the dark must draw comfort from Bootle’s reassurance that “history is littered with examples of countries that have enjoyed a shot in the arm from exposure to adversity”.

He extracts other quirky lessons from history. In a digression into England’s Anglo-Saxon past that makes him sound like an antiquarian MP in the early 17th-century House of Commons, Bootle writes: “British people have to accept laws imposed on them as a result of byzantine intrigue between the unelected European Commission and the leaders of the other European member states. This represents a negation of centuries of British history . . . The Anglo-Saxon kings were elected; not, admittedly, by universal suffrage, but from among the nobility and by the vote of an advisory council, the Witenagemot.”

More cogent is Bootle’s discussion of European monetary union: “The enterprise was unnecessary and it was embarked on too early and with insufficient preparation. It was an integration too far and too soon.”

Yet his suggestion that Germany might lead a post-euro northern European monetary union, and France might lead a southern union, takes too blithe a view of the profound commitment of Paris and Berlin, forged over more than 60 years, to a uniquely close relationship. Like many British politicians and commentators, Bootle pays insufficient attention to the depth of these ties.

Perhaps the British will do as he wishes and leave the EU. The rest of Europe will carry on the struggle for some form of unity with a persistence that Bootle might think strange but is unlikely to diminish.

The reviewer is the FT’s Europe editor

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