Trolls are a fact of life in our media and politics as much as on the internet. The best way for a small-time politician or starving pundit to get attention upon himself, and so “succeed” professionally, is to say something outrageous, regardless of facts or common decency. The road to notoriety, votes and book sales is paved with slurs, half-truths and outright lies, preferably delivered in the most offensive way possible. In the United States of America, being a troll, indeed the ability to manufacture controversy, has become a de facto requirement for appearing on many mainstream “news” shows.
So the less thoughtful of the British Europhobes are trolling as they’ve always trolled. The most recent has been over a rather unremarkable recent speech by Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council (whose main role is chairing EU summits of heads of state/government). Van Rompuy is obviously not a particularly inspiring political figure, but that is no reason to lie and miscast what he says. By parsing a few quotes and monstrously distorting them, several pundits and politicians have made claims that “the blustering Belgian” was issuing a “diktat” and was threatening to “abolish our nation”.
They make these claims without referring to a single concrete policy proposal mentioned in the speech. But what did Van Rompuy actually say? I will give a summary and then take on the various allegations of the Eurotrolls. (The full text, which is relatively short, can be found here.)
What the Speech Said
The speech, entitled “A curtain went up,” was given on November 9, the “Fateful Day” in German history which is the anniversary of numerous critical events in the country’s history including the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the antisemitic Kristallnacht in 1938 and the fall of the monarchy in 1918. Van Rompuy mainly talked about the reunification of East and West at the end of the Cold War, his “anticommunist convictions,” and the idea that this event marked Europe’s “return to the world stage”. Stressing the importance of the unity of the European continent, he praised the possibility of further enlargement.
In terms of policy, he urged better monitoring of European economies and budget deficits, endorsed Angela Merkel’s “limited treaty amendment” for a permanent “bailout” mechanism, said reform of pensions and social security should be left to the States, and praised the “political courage” of austerity governments (presumably including Britain). He also said he was sceptical of a European tax, saying that it was “not a top priority,” adding that “let’s be prudent, but let’s discuss it”.
These cautious and rather humdrum policy statements were studiously ignored by the Eurotrolls. Obviously one could focus on what aspect or the other of the speech. Deutsche Welle focused on the enlargement aspect while EUobserver stressed the warning against nationalism.
One could be thoughtfully critical of the speech (indeed The Economist‘s Charlemagne was just that.) Indeed, one sentence of the speech could be challenged in good faith both on the principle and as a hyperbolic overstatement: “In every Member State, there are people who believe their country can survive alone in the globalised world. It is more than an illusion: it is a lie!” The Europhobes went much further than legitimate criticism however. They perversely distorting many of Van Rompuy’s statements to manufacture a controversy. I will go through these statements and the responses they received.
“The Homogenous Nation-State”
All our countries have to deal with a new diversity. The time of the homogenous nation-state is over. Each European country has to be open to different cultures
This statement might seem like a banal truism. But to the trained Eurotroll, this is gold. UKIP leader Nigel Farage and the Daily Mail‘s Daniel Johnson immediately pounced on it. In an article entitled “The end of Britain as a nation state? Not on your life, Mr Van Rompuy,” Johnson cites the “homogenous nation” line as proof that Van Rompuy “has finally revealed his true colours”. Johnson continues, saying that “My first reaction to this latest diktat was to laugh out loud”, even though it isn’t exactly what diktat he is talking about.
The good Mr. Farage cites the same line in a press release and draws the conclusion that Van Rompuy “wants to abolish our nation. The only non-nation is Belgium, his own country.” The press release even mentions Farage’s own most illustrious episode of trolling: At Van Rompuy’s first speech he declared that the Belgian had “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-level bank clerk.” Farage is the kind of demagogue who likes to pretend defending British interests means behaving like a poorly-raised child.
I have to say, it is both hypocritical and pathetic that Britons should be feigning outrage over this statement. Britain is probably the most multicultural country in Europe (and London certainly is the most multicultural city). Indeed, Britain has never been a “homogenous nation-state” but a union of 4 nations and you’ll be damned if you ever mistake Irish, Scotsmen or Welsh with the English. Indeed, Farage’s insulting Belgium for “not being a country” is a little rich coming from one which Irish tried so hard to free themselves from and which the Scottish don’t always particularly keen on being part of either.
Van Rompuy’s statement is then not only true for Europe but is also particularly true for Britain. Yet somehow, a Eurotroll can turn an innocuous truism into a plot for world domination (which only gallant Little Englanders can prevent).
“The biggest enemy of Europe today is fear”
The other offending remark was a strong condemnation of nationalism. In it, Van Rompuy quotes Roosevelt while also channeling Yoda. It is worth reading in full:
Franklin Roosevelt said: ‘The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’ The biggest enemy of Europe today is fear. Fear leads to egoism, egoism leads to nationalism, and nationalism leads to war [quoting a famous speech by François Mitterrand].
Today’s nationalism is often not a positive feeling of pride of one’s own identity, but a negative feeling of apprehension of the others.
Fear of ‘enemies’ within our borders and beyond our borders. It is a feeling all over Europe, not of a majority, but everywhere present. Our Union is born out of a will to cooperate, to reconcile and to act in solidarity.
Fear is the source of immobility, of a lack of ambition, or worse, of protectionism, in Europe and globally. Those who are afraid of the loss of jobs and prosperity will thus create precisely what they wanted to avoid.”
In post entitled “Herman Van Rompuy: Euroscepticism leads to war,” Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan is unhappy with this appeal against bigotry and protectionism. Hannan condemns this, saying that “A patriot doesn’t belittle other countries: he cheers their sense of national pride, and values their freedom.” A fine statement, but wouldn’t it also be fair to say often, today’s nationalism might lead to negative feelings towards the others? “Others” who, recently, might be immigrants, Muslims or Roma?
Meanwhile, Mary Ellen Synon (again from the Daily Mail) in “Van Rompuy: more dangerous than he looks” makes a similar argument on nationalism. She calls the statement “Tripe. And I have to call it tripe, because in Brussels, ‘nationalism’ is not nationalism as we understand it.” She engages in some truly shameless slurs and fearmongering:
Van Rompuy is precisely the man to lead the Belgianisation of Europe. Make no mistake, the EU is an empire with global ambitions. It was no mere gesture that in his acceptance speech as president of the council, Van Rompuy extolled ‘global governance.’ Pay the man the compliment of believing he means what he says. And then be prepared to treat him as the dangerous, cynical anti-patriot he is.
Even “global governance” – not a particularly European term which refers to international cooperation on almost anything including counter-terrorism, anti-drug trafficking and international crime efforts, climate change, biodiversity, trade and non-proliferation – has become a codeword for the new Euro-totalitarian dictatorship. In an open admission of her yellow journalism, Synon’s blog is entitled “Euroseptic,” though presumably not in reference to the quality of her own writing.
The Gutter Journalism of Daniel Johnson
I would like to focus on Daniel Johnson’s article. He is the son of journalist Paul Johnson and editor of the magazine Standpoint. Given this, he must be held to a higher standard of truth than if he were just a second rate populist politician or a minor yellow journalist. I have already mentioned above Johnson’s condemnation of an imaginary “diktat” in the speech and the statement that Europe is not made up of “homogenous nations”. Yet, his article also has features many other distortions and untruths, far more than any other Eurotrolls discussed thus far.
Johnson really turns up the fear-o-meter. In making the speech, he accuses Van Rompuy of “empire-building” and of firing the “first shot in a new campaign to speed the transfer of sovereignty to Brussels”. Indeed, “[n]ot since the days of Jacques Delors (…) have the Euro-federalists been so bold in setting out their agenda,” he says. This is a claim which requires an impressive amount of selective amnesia given that we had the Euro and the failed Constitutional Treaty in meantime, two projects of far greater ambition than any of Van Rompuy’s proposals.
As evidence of Brussels’ creeping power, Johnson cites David Cameron’s “abject humiliation” on the European Court of Human Rights ruling that prisoners should be given the right to vote. Terrible, however, the ECHR has no relationship with the EU, but is a pan-European Cold War institution, originally set up in the 1950s (it also judges cases from Russia, Turkey and the Balkans).
There is obviously no mention of Van Rompuy’s actual policies or his scepticism of a European tax. Indeed, Johnson urges Cameron to start “wooing Chancellor Merkel” to undermine Van Rompuy’s scheme. He says this even as support for Angela Merkel’s push for closer monitoring of European economies and a permanent “bailout” mechanism was one of the few concrete policy proposals the speech made.
Johnson also indulges in some good old-fashioned frog-bashing. He sees the appointment of a Frenchman, Michel Barnier, as Commissioner for the Single Market (thus responsible for finance) as one of the signs of “an attempt by Europe to get its hands on the City [of London]”. I recently saw Commissioner Barnier give a very cordial talk in English to members of the British Bankers’ Association. They did not seem particularly hostile in any way to the former mayor of Grenoble.
Johnson also cites Brussels’ “bloated budget” which, for reference, is equal to just above 1% of Europe’s GDP, or about fortieth of that of national governments. But before Johnson gets hard-working Englishmen riled at continental parasites, we have to note that because of the size of the British rebate (€5.66 billion) the country’s net contribution to the EU budget is relatively small. At €1.36 billion in 2009, it was about a sixth that of Germany and two-thirds the size of that of the Netherlands.
Johnson concludes: “If Mr Van Rompuy wants a fight, David Cameron should give him one.”
This is the sort of shameless, irresponsible yellow journalism which Britain has become famous for. And I hate to get personal, but I can do no better than quote Daniel Johnson’s father, Paul Johnson from 2003:
I’ve stopped writing for the Daily Mail. They were most anxious for me to carry on, always ringing me up, but I came to the conclusion that that kind of journalism is bad for the country, bad for society, bad for the newspaper.
Can anyone top that?