Saturday, 28 March 2009

Tragedy and Farce

Though many of Karl Marx’s views were pretty questionable, he was right to declare that history repeats itself ‘the first time as tragedy, the second as farce’. He was talking specifically about the second French Empire which was indeed pitiful compared to the first, the one that ended at Waterloo. Though the first Napoleon was little more than a military despot who plunged Europe into a quarter century of bloodletting, there was a scale to his ambition and adventures that give them a dramatic quality even today. We still get films about Borodino or Waterloo, but who would make a film about Sedan where the other, smaller Napoleon was trounced by the Germans?

Today we’re going through another of these repetitions.

At the beginning of the thirteenth century Dante included in his monumental Divine Comedy, this outburst against his own country (in Longfellow’s striking translation):

Ah! servile Italy, grief's hostelry!
A ship without a pilot in great tempest!
No Lady thou of Provinces, but brothel!

Italy was the homeland of Rome, the greatest power the Western world had seen up to Dante’s time. It had collapsed into a patchwork of squabbling minor principalities. Declining in power, wealth and status they had watched upstart newcomers usurping the position that he felt should have been theirs.

Italy would go through half a millennium of divisions and domination by foreign powers before reuniting at last in 1860. In the century and a half since then it has arguably still not fully caught up with its more successful neighbours in Europe.

A tragedy.

The only good thing that comes from tragedy is the lessons we learn from it. But if we refuse to learn the lessons, we repeat the mistakes. And that means descending into farce.

Next week the G20 meets in London. Among the top economic powers will be Germany, Britain, France and Italy. The European Union will also be represented.

But how will the European Union find a voice with which to speak?

After all, Germany has decided that it is folly to spend your way out of a crisis. This is a curious position. George Soros is pretty scathing about world leaders and he clearly understands the world economy: he’s made a dollar or two here or there by exploiting the stupidities of national governments. This includes the previous Conservative administration in Britain, when he made a billion dollars out of its mismanagement of the economy, on Black Wednesday in 1992. I heard him tonight extolling the benefits of ‘counter-cyclical’ measures: as the economy shrinks you spend more to shorten the downturn. But Angela Merkel, or at least the people around her, think they know better though both China and the US have gone down the Soros route.

As for Britain, we can never agree with our European partners if we see any chance of getting still closer to the US. I used to think of Britain as the fifty-first State until I realised that if we were, we’d actually have a vote in US elections. As it happens, our policy is decided in Washington and we don’t even get a say in who should be calling the tune out there.

And then there’s France. The French government is always keen to talk endlessly about the Community, but is perfectly happy to sell it down the river if it believes that’s in the nation’s short-term interest. Sarkozy is subsidising the car industry but only if it focuses its rescue efforts on plant in France to maintain French jobs. That kind of protectionism is illegal under EU regulations, but that’s not likely to stop him.

In passing it never ceases to amaze me that a nation like France, far better educated and far more sophisticated in political understanding than Britain, ends up with such buffoons at its head. It’s not even as though they’re fools, like George W. Bush. They’re intelligent. If anything, they try to be too clever and end up being transparently hypocritical. Sarkozy will maintain that his actions are not anti-EU. I don’t know who he thinks he’s fooling. All he achieves is to look devious, which is the worst of all possible worlds: the really devious get away with it because no-one sees they’re being devious.

The sad thing is that at the last elections, France really only had a choice between his brand of clever foolishness and an even more pronounced case in his opponent, Ségolène Royal. His equal intellectually, she demonstrated in an unbroken series of gaffes during her campaign that she was even less qualified to be president. At one point, she believed a comedian who phoned her pretending to be the Canadian prime minister, leading her into making a series of damaging admissions over an open telephone line.

Surely the French deserve better than a choice between Sarko and Ségo.

Italy is even more lamentable. No-one, but no-one, deserves Berlusconi. Only immunity as an elected official prevents his conviction as a criminal and today he’s celebrating the merger between his party and that of the successors of Mussolini. But the Italians keep voting for him.

Gemany, Britain, France, Italy. Are their irreconcilably different views going to nourish a common position to be expressed by the EU?

So the G20 will be dominated by the G2 made up of the USA and China, though Europe and the United States are economic equals and China is far behind. But we Europeans can’t pull together, so we can’t pull our weight.

It’s farcical.

Ahi serva Europa, di dolore ostello,
nave sanza nocchiere in gran tempesta,
non donna di province, ma bordello!

1 comment:

Awoogamuffin said...

Wasn't the Canadian prime minister prank pulled on Sarah Palin? Or did they do it twice?