Rebellion is brewing against the political elite that has ruined Europe
'The idiot in Brussels' and his like may keep their jobs for now, but trust is evaporating fast
10:10PM BST 23 Apr 2014
BBC viewers will be happy to hear that Mr Altafaj Tardio has prospered in the two years since I repeatedly insulted him on the airwaves, leading to him dramatically stripping off his microphone and marching out of the studio (a Newsnight producer frog-marched me out very shortly afterwards).
Mr Altafaj Tardio is no longer a mere Brussels media spokesman. Today he wields real power as deputy chef de cabinet for Olli Rehn, a vice-president of the European Commission and European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs.
I am told that Mr Altafaj Tardio is well regarded and that further promotions may beckon. He is paid a salary of an estimated €140,000 a year, doubtless along with generous allowances. And there is no danger at all that next month’s European elections will cause him to be thrown out of his job. In short, Mr Altafaj Tardio is one of the many people in Brussels who hold power, but are in no meaningful way accountable for the appalling social and economic degradation that has been inflicted across much of southern Europe over the past few years.
In addition, I am occasionally asked a second question about Mr Altafaj Tardio: do I regret calling him an idiot live on air? In retrospect, I think I probably do. To call somebody an idiot is to imply that they are in some way mentally incapable, and therefore not morally responsible for their actions. I have received several assurances from interested parties that Mr Altafaj Tardio is an intelligent and well-educated man. It is therefore reasonable to assume that he understands precisely what he is doing – and the terrible damage he is causing – yet carries on regardless.
Let’s bear in mind that Olli Rehn, to whom Mr Altafaj Tardio reports, is the Commissioner responsible for handling the eurozone crisis, and therefore the European Union’s financial enforcer. Mr Rehn has made a number of dreadful errors, many of them chronicled by my brilliant colleague Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. They border on economic sadism, or even go beyond it.
The fundamental mistake, for which Mr Rehn ought to take responsibility, was the perverse decision to force the countries of southern Europe to pay the price for errors made mainly by northern European bankers. In all conscience, Mr Rehn ought to have resigned – or at least given an apology – for letting off the banks while inflicting devastation on southern Europe.
It is of course unfair to blame Mr Rehn for everything that has happened. Nevertheless, in ordinary democratic politics, he would have carried the can long ago. I remember the odium that was poured on Norman Lamont, after he declared as Chancellor that unemployment and recession were a price “well worth paying” for curbing inflation.
Mr Rehn clearly thinks along similar lines – and has implemented his policy in a far more brutal way. He has interpreted his role as imposing from above on European governments identical policies of economic austerity, regardless of whom the voters of those countries have chosen to put in office. As Philippe Legrain, a former economic adviser to the Commission’s president, Jose Manuel Barroso, noted this week in the New York Times: “That a remote, unelected and scarcely accountable official in Brussels should deny voters legitimate choices about tax and spending decisions is undemocratic and alienates people from the European Union.”
Mr Legrain labelled Mr Rehn’s policy “fiscal colonialism”. Certainly, its consequences have been grotesque. The European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs is subjecting the peoples of Europe to a vicious social and economic experiment. Parts of Europe have suffered a depression worse than that of the Thirties. Entire economies have been wiped out before our eyes, and the life chances of tens of millions of young people obliterated. (It continues to puzzle me why Left-wing commentators, such as The Observer’s Will Hutton, who were so incensed by Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies in the Eighties, have little or nothing to say about this: the so-called Thatcher cuts were a pinprick by comparison.)
This brings me to the European elections that are to be held next month. In theory, they could mark a historic moment of social and political upheaval, as the subject voters of Europe challenge the political colonialism of the centre. And there are scattered signs that nationalist parties determined to smash the EU system may indeed achieve some substantial successes. In France, Marine Le Pen could lead the National Front to first place in the polls. The situation in Greece is indecipherable. Here in Britain (where we have a far stronger democratic tradition than other European countries), Nigel Farage has emerged as a brilliant leader of the insurgent Ukip, which may well get more votes than the Conservatives.
Elsewhere, the political analyst runs into difficulty. In defiance of logic, the expected anti-European revolt is simply not happening. Take the example of Spain, which has suffered terribly during the past five years and where youth unemployment is more than 50 per cent. One would expect a revolution – and yet there are no anti-European parties that are worthy of the name. Exactly the same applies to Portugal, which has suffered almost as badly during the eurozone crisis.
A paradox is at work. It was only towards the end of the last century that Spain and Portugal emerged from dictatorships, while the former Iron Curtain countries have emerged from Communist rule even more recently. For them, the European Union represents a deeply cherished respectability. These countries seem happy to exchange the formal apparatus of dictatorship for the European Union’s emerging anti-democratic system.
The EU has always been at heart an elite project. It has been defined by rule from above, made deliberately unintelligible to the average citizen. Its first architects, having lived through the fascism of the Thirties and the horrors of the Second World War, indeed had excellent reasons for distrusting democracy and the popular will.
This helps to explain the most unlikely feature of the European system: the absence of opposition. Next month’s elections will see a surge of support for anti-European parties, but for the most part they articulate national concerns and do not walk together. Mr Farage’s Ukip, for example will have nothing to do with Mme Le Pen’s National Front. There is no common anti-European agenda – which is an important reason why the established parties will continue to dominate the European Parliament after next month’s elections.
This is the environment in which skilful bureaucrats, such as my friend Mr Altafaj Tardio, can rise to the top and stay there. But elites can only survive for so long as they are trusted – and the political class that governs Europe has made a spectacular mess. Next month’s elections may not amount to a revolution, but we will certainly see the greatest rebellion yet against a politically bankrupt system. Mr Altafaj Tardio can be confident of a job at the start of June, but he would be unwise to count on making it to pension age. Something new and interesting is afoot.