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By jingo what a crisis

Mark Mardell | 08:20 UK time, Sunday, 1 March 2009

Many of the prime ministers and presidents will arrive at this EU emergency summit in a fractious and irritable mood. And not just because of their broken weekend. It will probably end in bland conclusions and half-smiles because there is almost an obligation to put on the brave face of unity for the cameras. EU nations' flags

But make no mistake, the world's economic crisis is putting this unique institution, the European Union, under very serious strain. The jeopardy is financial, political and philosophical.

Item number one on the agenda is not written up as "smack Sarko", but the whole meeting is aimed at dealing with what is seen as the French president's economic jingoism and defiance of the expected European spirit. In the dock is his plan to rescue his country's car industry at the expense of other countries.

Protectionism may or may not be a good thing, but it is undoubtedly true that it flies in the face of the whole raison d'etre of the EU, as a single market, a community with a common purpose, an organisation committed to free trade.

This goes to the heart of the argument that I often read here in the comments to my posting. Many claim the EU simply cannot work in the long run, because people do not think of themselves as European citizens but as French or British or Latvians, first and foremost.

In the crucible of recession this stops being academic. As factories close and jobs are lost many people and politicians do want to guard jobs in their own country first. This seems obvious, but I wonder how far this spirit is devolved. Is a Suffolk boy really happy to see jobs go to, say, Stirling or Southampton rather than his home city?

Economists of course argue protectionism by one nation leads to retaliation by another. It happens in politics too. This summit will be preceded by a gathering of the nine Eastern European countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Slovakia, Estonia, Bulgaria and Romania).

Such pre-summit caucusing has happened before, when the Eastern countries had a common position on climate change. But some regarded it as a worrying trend if the EU is breaking into semi-formal groupings based on both politics and geography, rather than the usual ad hoc shifting kaleidoscope of alliances. The fracture could become permanent.

The strains are economic too. Those who are hostile to the euro, and said it would never work, cross their fingers that they will be vindicated this year and the single currency will fly apart. I am willing to bet a very small proportion of the ever-dwindling euro buying power of my sterling salary that that won't happen. But there may have to be considerable sacrifice by Germany and others to damp things down. It will be another practical test of the European spirit.

If this wasn't all serious enough, the Commission itself is feeling bruised, because of the many criticisms that it has been hopeless in the face of the crisis. Some ask if it's no good now, what good is it? The French president has more or less criticised a lack of a plan and a lack of ambition in public, and others mutter in private that President Barroso has been well behind the curve.

I mentioned economic jingoism earlier, but the Commission's retort is rather the reverse of the song that gave rise to that word for bellicose nationalism.

In British music halls before the Crimean War they sang: "We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do, We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too."

The Commission might sing: "We'd love to plan and love to fund, but by jingo we cannot do either, We ain't got the power, we ain't got the men, we ain't got the money, neither."

Which is to say that the Commission feels it is unfair to moan at them when it is the nation states that haven't given them a budget or the competence to produce a Europe-wide plan for the car industry, or any other industry.

It will be intriguing to see how the leaders behave today, when the strains on the EU are so great, and the challenges ahead so daunting.


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