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Living in a time of perilous uncertainty
Monday 28 May 2012 by Jonathan Goldsmith
This is a piece about mood and atmosphere: how it feels to live and work in Brussels at a time of feverish speculation about the European Union’s future. It says something of the stability of the last few decades that it is the first occasion in my life that I have experienced such uncertainty in the political and economic structures around me.
There has just been another EU summit, the nth attempt to resolve the knotted eurozone crisis. I am based in Brussels’ European quarter, and summits mean razor wire, barricades, police cars and water-cannon (just in case), and sometimes demonstrations. There are endless traffic jams, blaring police sirens, and certain roads and the metro station are blocked off.
I have ceased to listen to the outcome of the summits, because they are depressing. The events are too huge for anyone to control. No one seems to have the right answers. Is the vast empire tottering?
And yet life goes on. On the morning after the summit, I went to a meeting with the European Commission’s Directorate General of Development and Cooperation to speak about funding for projects in countries neighbouring the EU, whether in wider Europe or the Mediterranean region. One of the points I wanted to make to those responsible in the European Commission for drawing up funded projects is not to forget about the role of lawyers in the promotion of the rule of law abroad.
The EU gives millions for democracy and the rule of law, and its intentions are good. But in the area of justice they give too often to governments, since they are the EU’s interlocutors, and it is easy to give them great dollops of cash without bothering too much about it afterwards. As the officials said, civil society cannot so easily absorb the management and control of large sums of money. Yet the role of lawyers, who are the first port of call for citizens anywhere in trouble, is not bound up with governments, and governments do not readily include lawyers in the projects. So we wanted to remind the commission to make provision for lawyer-focused initiatives. The point seemed well-received.
How strange! There is vast sovereign debt, countries are bailed-out, the euro is going through an existential crisis, but we are are still talking about enormous funding for foreign aid projects, and we are still planning far into the future. I often have the feeling that we should stop everything and wait for the euro to stabilise. But life goes on, including long-term planning as if nothing out of the usual is occurring. That seems to me right, though. Those of us who are unable to influence the future should continue as if the future will look like the present. It may feel curious, but there is no alternative.
Focus on the future is not helped by parts of the press in the UK, which I should stop reading. No one minds a reasonable discussion of the future prospects of the euro and the EU, including pointing out errors made to date and possible unwelcome outcomes. But the gleeful hysteria of mountains of articles willing the worst possible result - anticipating disaster with pleasure - is despicable, and unworthy of civilised discourse.
I assume that these same journalists believe in the sanctity of the nation state - oblivious of its violent history, and despite there being continuing civil unrest in Northern Ireland and the beginning of a referendum campaign on Scottish independence. (Other nation states in Europe, such as Spain and my own base of Belgium, face similar uncertainty.) It would be better if I read just foreign newspapers.
I pray for the uncertainty to pass, and for the EU to continue its work as usual. As for the eurozone, I have no choice but to believe in the abilities of those with the task of guiding it. Other outcomes are too unpleasant to contemplate.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents about one million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs
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