Bluff Your Way Out of the European Economic Community

Bluff Your Way Out of the European Economic Community December 19, 2016

Or, What did Brexit look like in 1988?

Months ago, in the halcyon days of May, I was browsing the cheap shelves at Second Story when I came upon Bluff Your Way in the EEC. This is part of the Bluffer’s Guide series, overgrown pamphlets designed to teach ’80s people how to pretend they understand things like Philosophy, Accountancy, Feminism, Jazz, Japan, The Occult, and “Hi-Fi” (??). I grabbed this thing and a saint-of-the-day guide from I think the early ’70s, which turned out to be a really endearing mix of stern martyrology and felt-banners social concern, and threw it in a corner for a rainy day.

It rained.

I’ve read it now; I loved it. And if you want a good guide to reasons somebody might vote Brexit–specifically, reasons that aren’t about hating Muslims–you might read it too. I don’t doubt that racism and scapegoating were part of the story of Brexit. And I don’t pretend to understand the issues well enough to have strong opinions on whether Brexit was what the philosophers call “a good idea.” But I do have sympathies, and those sympathies are for local control and against top-down bureaucratic management of economic and social life. What I’m saying is that there are three things you should never ask the British to trust: sunshine, bureaucracy, and the Danes.

So the thing with Bluff Your Way in the EEC is that under its bouncy, cynical tone it has an earnest streak. The author, Michael Toner, conscientiously notes wherever some Euroscheme has actually done its job–wherever do-gooders somehow managed to do some good.

But still you wonder: Was it necessary, in order to provide wheat reserves for Europe, to build a Vatican of sausage-length regulators? This is an implicitly Hayekian book, all about the reasons experts fail to know things. It’s about the inability to predict economic needs, the law of unintended consequences, and the modern pressure to centralize, internationalize, and standardize.

It’s also about the “pork carousel” (an import-export scheme in which pigs trot merrily across borders, gathering subsidies on every trip) and the Dutch manure glut. Toner, unlike the well-meaning of this world, knows how easily humans interpret law as damage and route around it. He isn’t always completely prescient–there are lots of muted warnings that Euro-unity is coming faster and harder than you think, but he’s still very skeptical that the Chunnel and the Euro will come into play anytime soon.

Hard to notice his foibles, though, when he gives you stuff like this: “It goes without saying that Mr. [Edward] Heath is more highly regarded in France, Germany, Italy, Holland, the United States, China and the USSR than he is in his own land. But then he never ran any of those countries.”

Toner is cheery about the traditional English loathing of Europeans–my impression is that 20th-century English people were quite open about their opinions on this score, and you already know why you can hardly blame them. He notes that the Labour Party initially opposed the EEC. If I had to guess his own sordid predilections I’d say Tory (apparently he wrote editorials for the Daily Mail), but I could be wrong, I’m a bluffer here myself. He enjoys watching Maggie Thatcher stick it to ’em.

Toward the end he glosses the term “the Democratic Deficit,” meaning the idea “that the bureaucracy of the Common Market is accumulating more and more power while elected politicians suck on their thumbs on the sidelines.” That section closes with this:

Things have got to such a state that the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, has prophesied that the present system of national parliaments will give way to an “embryo” form of European Government by the mid-1990s. The Eurobluffer should learn what he said, in July 1988, off by heart: “One day, national parliaments will wake up to what is happening, there will be a shock reaction, and this will create problems for the Community.”

You can say that again, Jacques.

I think we can end there.

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