Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Raft of the Europa

The Raft of the Medusa is probably the best known painting by Théodore Géricault, a nineteenth century French artist of the Romantic school. It’s an over the top, larger than life, extravaganza, though there is nothing at all extravagant or romantic about the story behind it.

It depicts the survivors from the Méduse, a frigate which sunk of the coast of Africa in 1816. Of almost a hundred people rescued from the shipwreck only fifteen were still alive when they were picked up almost a fortnight later, floating on a makeshift raft. Reduced to cannibalism, some of them had gone completely mad.

Oddly, or perhaps understandably, it was this voyage of the damned that came to mind in thinking about the latest, and almost certainly foredoomed, attempt to sail the Raft of the Europa to safety. There they all are, the seventeen of the euro club, wedded together by mutual interest, mutual antipathy and mutual hate. There they are, driven mad by hubris, feeding on the Greek corpse, with the Italian in the reserve, desperately hoping that they will be picked by some passing Chinese junk, the Yuan.

Are they mad or is it me? It must be me because I can see no sense at all in a country like Greece being on this voyage in the first place. Just think what would have happened in my insane world. The drachma would have hit a reef; the Greek economy would have sunk; the country would be forced to default on its debts, its credit rating hitting an all-time low.

Then the real rescue would have sailed by: the currency would be devalued; Greek exports would be competitively priced; tourists would flood in to a cheap and attractive location. Instead it’s the Raft of the Europa, an overvalued currency in an undervalued economy, a country being consumed by its partners. Are they keeping Greece afloat? No, of course not; they are keeping the lending institutions behind the whole crazy voyage afloat.

No, I’m not mad: the lunatics truly are in charge of the EU asylum. There is Spain, another country sailing on that Raft, looking as thin as Germany looks fat (this is a voyage in which some feed and some are fed upon), a country with levels of unemployment as bad as those which destroyed the Weimar Republic. Yet it’s politicians sail on, lacking the imagination to do anything else, overcome by a helpless and fatalistic mood, waiting for their turn to come.

Meanwhile we look on from the safety of our island, aware of new opportunities. Last Monday this awareness caused a little local difficulty in Parliament. You see, Comrade Dave Cameron, the Prime Minister, thought it would be a jolly good idea if the ordinary voters were allowed to determine some of the issues debated in the House of Commons, all part of the brave new Coalition vision. Back came the answer: more than 100,000 signed an online petition calling for a debate on whether there should be a referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union.

It’s a measure, really, of how angry people are with politicians and parties, the Conservatives included, who promised votes on Europe, most recently over the Lisbon Treaty, only to renege when in power.

Yes, it’s all very well to have debates on subjects one wants, but Cameron most assuredly did not want this debate at this time. All sorts of threats were issued against potential rebels in his own party. The vote was lost but a sufficient number of Conservatives held to their convictions, and not just the old Eurosceptic warhorses. It’s been a sobering experience for Dave and his sycophantic clique. The writing might be said to be on the wall.

Well, at least it is according to William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, who likened the MPs who voted for a referendum to graffiti artists. In the Spectator Charles Moore reminds us of the original Writing on the Wall from the Book of Daniel: “The Kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and the Persians.” The kingdom was divided and given to the Medes and the Persians. The time has come to take it back.

There is the bigger picture, of course, the ‘interests of the nation’. That’s something the Europhile Economist is always happy to preach about, the ‘interests of the nation’; that's something it is preaching about in the latest issue. OK, OK, we now know, it says, that the euro was a jolly bad idea (reminder to self: dredge up previous abject praise), “to give the Eurosceptics their due” (oh, how that must have hurt), but Europe is still a jolly good idea blah de blah de blah.

As for referenda, as for any attempt at direct democracy or voter participation in the political process, beyond, that is, as cattle prodded in periodic polls, the magazine’s Bagheot column helpfully reminds us of the words of Edmund Burke. In 1774 he told his Bristol constituents, after they sent him to Parliament, that while he would ‘rejoice’ to hear their opinions he would not take instructions from them. He was his own man, you see, not Bristol’s envoy; he would deliberate the ‘national interest’, not theirs.

“But today’s backbenchers”, the article proceeds in a pompous and condescending tone, “unmistakably rejected Burke’s lofty vision of representative democracy.” Is there any wonder that people are frustrated, that democracy is in danger, real as opposed to 'representative democracy', when that same ‘lofty vision’ means that their wishes are ignored time and again? It's the arrogance I find most outrageous here, the conceit that insists that the people, the many people, who take a view contrary to the Economist should be disregarded, should not have their views heard. No wonder this insufferably dull publication is full of supine admiration for the EU; it has an editorial outlook not that much different from the Eurocrats in Brussels. Is there a subsidy here, I wonder, some kind of kickback?

Never mind me; I'm just in a mood, a mood over that ‘lofty vision’ which took us into Europe in the first place; the 'lofty vision' that has locked us into a system based, it seems to me, on a negation of the popular will, a negation of any real notion of democracy, namely, that there should be a meaningful relationship between people and their representatives, between voters and platforms, between votes and outcomes. “Are Britain’s political leaders losing faith in representative democracy?”, Bagheot asks. Are the people losing faith in any kind of democracy? That would seem to be an altogether more pertinent question, one beyond the ken and comprehension of the Economist.

Meanwhile the Raft of the Europa sails on and the junk sails by, as Germany gnaws on the bones of Greece.


  1. Isn't it odd how mesmerized early 19th century Europe was by this dreadful event? After all, the entire continent had been raped and cannibalized by the monsters of the French Revolution and Napoleon for more than 20 years. Yet those horrors were somehow less of a psychic trauma than the fate of this one ship. Perhaps there are some catastrophes that are simply too big to comprehend.

    I believe that the fate of the European Project is at stake over the current fiscal farrago, but that failure represents the best chance of liberty for the peoples of Europe. I'm delighted to see the foundering of EU's ship of foolish bureaucrats. If I could add Moby Dick, Jaws, and the Kraken to their tale of misery, I would.

  2. Ein Volk!, Ein Reich!, Ein Fuhrer!

  3. Very allegorical Anastasia! Personally, I prefer to view it as a French farce rather than as a Greek tragedy. Just look at the cast - Merkel, Sarkosy, Rumpoy, Ashton..... I know it's superficial to judge people by their appearance, but I prefer the good looking, tall, mustached Greek chap - Papa-wotsit.

  4. Extremely well crafted post. if I may say so, Ana. Will be linking to this later today.

  5. Calvin, you are absolutely right: there is something in this which says a lot about the limits of the human imagination, the ability to comprehend only so much. It’s the Stalin syndrome, I suspect: namely, one death is a tragedy; a million deaths a statistic.

    You will be aware how rapidly things are moving. I thought the Greek dog was about to bite. No longer, it seems.

  6. Anthony, ein Merkel und ein Sarkozy - too many eins for me!

  7. Michael, yes, there is an element of farce here. I'm about to have a go at Papa-wotsit. :-)

  8. I'm aware of most things, at least I try to be,

  9. “Are Britain’s political leaders losing faith in representative democracy?”, Bagheot asks. Are the people losing faith in any kind of democracy?

    Yes, they are Ana.