Issue 103: 2017 05 04: EU to win in France? (John Watson)

04 May 2017

EU To Win In France?

Nemesis in numbers.

By John Watson

Whew!  The sigh of relief can be heard from Finland to Spain.  It is going to be all right after all.  M Macron is still well ahead in the polls and it would take a political earthquake to bring Le Pen to power.  The EU has escaped a Frexit.  For the time being, at least, France will remain at its heart.

But even as the junketing gets underway in Brussels, even as the Commission serves champagne and canapés to its relieved staff, a spectre stalks the feast and chills the hearts of those who exercise authority in the corridors of power.  Is it the ghost of one of the great revolutionaries of the past, Robespierre, perhaps, or Cromwell, or Lenin?  No, it is something far more ruthless than even they ever were.  It is the rules of mathematics.

The key to whether the EU can remain intact can be found in any decent library if you locate the right shelf.  Walk past the biographies of the great international statesman, past Talleyrand, past Machiavelli, past Castlereagh.  Walk on past the shelves devoted to the great empire builders and breakers of the past.  Then enter the room devoted to literature and stop when you come to Tom Stoppard.  It is in his play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead” that the important clue is to be found.

Those familiar with the play will recall that it begins with the tossing of a coin and 156 consecutive “heads”.  Of course each time the coin is tossed, the odds of it coming up heads again are evens but the chance of 156 consecutive heads is vanishingly small.  Now let’s apply the same logic to the stability of the EU.

Currently the bookmakers are giving about 13/2 on Marine Le Pen and about 1/8 on Emmanuel Macron.  That puts the likelihood of a Macron victory at a little under 90%, pretty good you might think in the uncertain world of politics.  No doubt it will all go just fine on the day, and the chances of Germany (where both parties are led by committed Europeans) electing a pro EU Chancellor must be higher still – a whisker off 100%, perhaps.  But then, as the cycle of domestic elections turns and one by one the other 25 members of the EU go to the polls, some less certain prospects will come to the top.  What about Greece and Italy, racked by a euro exchange rate which suppresses their economies?  What about Hungary with its reluctance to comply with EU educational and asylum policies?  What about other countries where the popular mood is to defy the application of European law?  There must be at least a small risk of things going wrong, of parties hostile to continued EU membership being elected.

Let us suppose, for the sake of illustration, that the risk of any particular election producing a government committed to exit is 5%.  What then is the likelihood of getting all the way round the 27 nation electoral cycle without an upset?  Actually, the mathematics isn’t very difficult.  If the chance of surviving once is 95%, the chance of surviving twice must be 95% x 95%.  The odds on three consecutive survivals are 95% x 95% x 95% or 86% and, as the repetitions build up, the odds of survival drop.  The chance of surviving 27 times consecutively is around 25%.

Well, one in four are not impossible odds if you are feeling lucky, but it may be rather worse than that. Suppose that you go round the electoral cycle twice, then the chances of surviving unscathed drop to 6%.  Suppose that 95% is too optimistic and that it should be 90%.  Then the chance of getting round the cycle once drops to 6% and the chance of getting round twice is less than 0.5%.

The mathematics may be speculative but the lesson is obvious.  If each domestic election carries a risk of exit then exits are going to happen.  The only way to avoid that is to stop offering the choice.

Most political unions operate without the various parts being given any opportunity to leave.  American states cannot leave the USA.  That possibility died in the bloodshed of the Civil War.  Germany and Italy are each amalgamations of smaller states, forged by Bismarck and Garibaldi, by exploiting military force and a common culture.  India has been forged into a single country quite successfully.  Pakistan, much less so.  Why should the EU not become one of those states whose citizens are content for democracy to be exercised at a federal level?

At one stage, perhaps, it could have worked.  Originally the various communities which ultimately morphed into the EU had only six members: France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.  If at that stage a powerful democratic system had been introduced with power vested in a government elected on a community-wide franchise, then a new state might have been created, albeit one which would have expanded much more slowly than did the EU.  Still, it never happened.  Domestic politicians remained jealous of their mandates and ultimate power was never surrendered to the centre. Perhaps it never could have been, but in any case it is too late now and for all the talk of deepening the Union, it is highly unlikely that the electorates of the member states will prove willing to endorse a merger of sovereignty, or the mechanisms for transferring wealth that would be needed to support that. The choice will remain and with the choice the danger.

The road to irrevocable merger being closed for the time being, the EU is left with the prospect of countries leaving over the years.  Clearly it wouldn’t make sense to make enemies of them all and yet it is important that membership should be seen to carry advantages.  Some sort of relationship is required and it needs to be carefully designed.  Will the EU allow nations to participate on an à la carte basis? – you can sell financial services provided that you adhere to EU financial standards?  Your nationals can remain here provided that ours can remain in your country on the same basis?  You can see our military intelligence if we can see yours?  Perhaps so: perhaps not.  However, as the EU negotiators wrestle with these problems over the next months they will need to keep in mind that, although they may be negotiating with the UK, they are setting a route down which others will inevitably follow.


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