Bernard Ingham: Anti-democratic EU should learn the lesson of Gorbachev

IT’S a pound to a penny that our European leaders never give a thought to Mikhail Gorbachev as the great European trauma over debt and despair moves from one watering hole to another.

They should. Gorbachev can be very instructive. Why, for example, did he bring about the collapse of Soviet Communism? Not, I am sure, because he wanted to do. He was a Communist apparatchik from a long way back.

But he was an exceptional Communist apparatchik. He had a pronounced streak of humanity. And with perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness) he tried to give Communism a human face through a dash of democracy only to discover it could not bear its weight.

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I am reminded of this as the EU tries to rescue its defining enterprise – the euro – from collapse. Its leaders exhibited the kind of horror that must have been felt in the Kremlin over glasnost and perestroika when the Greek Prime Minister announced a referendum on the EU’s bailout package for is country.

Indeed, they behaved just like the Scottish academic on a BBC radio programme I once did with my old boss, Tony Benn. Both of us Sassenachs gave the egghead, broadcasting from Scotland, a piece of our minds when he said that ordinary people were far too ignorant to contribute usefully to Europe’s development.

I was so vehement in attacking his disgraceful arrogance that I felt obliged afterwards to tell Benn, who had found my working for Margaret Thatcher uncomfortable, that I would not in future embarrass him by agreeing so wholeheartedly with him.

But that is by the way.

To return to Gorbachev. He discovered that the merest hint of democracy was toxic to Soviet Communism. No wonder Putin keeps it in check.

In Europe, where the whole concept took root – ironically in Greece – 2,500 years ago, it is in no great shakes either.

George Papandreou’s idea of seeking Greek public support for another austere rescue package collapsed in flames inside 24 hours under pressure from the EU who saw the euro going down the drain.

Nor are we Brits in any position to look down our aristocratic noses at all this. David Cameron has run a mile from a promised referendum on our relationship with Europe in his first 18 months in No 10 and uses his Whips to thwart one.

But this is the trouble with what is now called the European Union. It is at best a bureaucracy – an unelected Commission with the right to introduce legislation decked out with ineffectual democratic trimmings in the form of an apology for a Euro-Parliament.

Certainly, we British were consulted in the 1975 referendum to confirm our membership. But time has shown that we were then grossly misled about its intended integration, which has since proceeded in its relentlessly stealthy way.

The EU, with 17 member-states in the single currency and 10 outside it, is nothing like the original Common Market. It has been developed into its current faltering edifice by a cunning and ruthless elite to whom democracy is as alien as Benn and I found it in the Scottish professor.

It may well be that a referendum in Greece would upset the apple cart and had therefore somehow to be suppressed. But that is no reason why the UK cannot have one, if only to strengthen the hands of our negotiators in seeking to repatriate powers that will eventually have to come back from Brussels, whatever Nick Clegg thinks.

Ah yes, but our rickety, failing modern Europe was not built by strengthening the hands of reformers, still less the people. It was constructed by keeping the levers of power in the hands of a tightly knit group of politically motivated men and women.

In short, the EU has a yawning democratic deficit. That is both a blessing and a liability. If it were a real democracy it would be a federal United States of Europe with its own elected Parliament, Government, policies, currency, judiciary and army.

Not many Britons will want that in the foreseeable future, though who knows what the ultimate consequences of Tony Blair’s unrestrained immigration will be.

But its lack of democratic legitimacy will do for it in the end just as Gorbachev’s nod towards the democratic ideal lit a fire under the Soviet dictatorship.

It will be a sort of time bomb ticking away – unless, of course, someone has the sense to refashion the EU as a free-trading group of nation states. Don’t bet on it.