View from Brussels: Time to look back

Our columnist sums up his thoughts after 10 years of writing about Brussels for E&T readers.

This is the last ‘View from Brussels’ column in this particular format It’s been going for 10 years in the printed version of E&T, since February 2008.

Here are some reflections. I enjoyed the diversity of national perspectives. The best minds drawn from a population of 500 million offered more challenge than those drawn from a population of 65 million. Coming back to Britain, the national debate often seemed parochial. It didn’t help that the British tend not to speak other languages. The Victorian ruling class at least spoke French, and often Latin and Greek as well. It is interesting to speculate on whether the suppleness of mind induced by being forced to master Greek verbs gave the British the intellectual skills to run a worldwide empire – back in the 19th century.

Being binational and bilingual, I felt perfectly at home in Brussels, among all the strange combinations of overlapping identities people possessed. It was not homogenised in that sense: instead, national identity (or identity combinations) became a marker fetishised to an almost ridiculous extent. The politics was oligarchical and corporatist, not democratic in terms of rule by the people. But there were many interest groups with representation back in member states who were part of the decision-making. The result was compromise and complexity, hard to sell or explain to the tabloids or the voters back home. The Dutch writer Joris Luyendijk, whom I quoted a few columns ago, thinks the British can’t handle compromise because of their political culture (which demands clear dividing lines, winners and losers, almost authoritarian in a sense.)

However, life is not black and white, but comes in shades of grey. To play the Brussels game required dedication to what was going on, a kind of Fingerspitzengefühl, (‘finger tips feeling’, or situational awareness.) The British did not care, did not respect the system, were enclosed in their own parochial arrogance. How many organisations could contain a person who doesn’t play by any rules, does completely his own thing? The EU did so for a long time.

My interests, and my geographical location, have moved on from Brussels. What the federalists and the eurosceptics have in common is that they believe Brussels is so terribly important. It has been said that we are returning to an era of geopolitics, or great power competition. But maybe it was always thus: the European Community was a product of the Cold War, and the European movement was backed from its early days by the CIA. (There is a good article by Ambrose Evans Pritchard in the Telegraph, with sources, on the subject).

According to one kind of thinking, if Europe could be united enough to form a single market but not so united it could be a geopolitical rival, it would be useful to the world’s premier economic, corporate and military power, namely the United States. Of course the US wanted Britain to stay in the EU. President Obama even made a very public speech to that effect. Britain worked hard to counteract a united European foreign policy. Incidentally, now that Britain has lost its role as America’s influencer inside the EU, what role next for the country on the geopolitical scene? Since it has ‘gained’ its sovereignty from Europe, why is there no discussion of Britain’s sovereignty with regards to the United States? Isn’t Brexit a chance for some intellectual and political house-cleaning in the whole area of Britain’s international relationships? The silence in the British debate is rather telling.

What fascinates me these days is the importance, not of French and Slovenian bureaucrats deciding the size of widgets, but the covert actions and psychological games of the great powers in shaping important events, with the mainstream media very happy to parrot the narratives of those in power. The Middle East was set on fire 16 years ago by the Anglo-American attack on Iraq which followed 9/11. A blowback came when British voted out of the EU, partly because of the sight of all those refugees flooding into Europe from Iraq, and the wars that followed.

I just ask all you engineers to watch the videos by Architects and Engineers for Truth on the 9/11 attacks; there are many on YouTube. You can start there. Watch these extremely experienced buildings engineers question whether the first collapse in history not of one, but three, high-rise buildings (on the same day!) really resulted from kerosene fires – and then maybe re-examine your views on geopolitics based on that.

Apart from covert and psychological operations, another thing that has made me realise – or move on from – the world view of both federalists and eurosceptics that Brussels is everything, is the sheer potential for technology to upend our lives in ways we can never predict. Supply your own examples. Which kind of leads me into the last point of this, my last column: that you, engineers and inventors, should consider your moral responsibility for what you create. Because the bureaucrats, Brussels or otherwise, won’t be up to speed on it.

I interviewed the other day a middle aged man who claimed to have, in his youth, been a member of the US special forces. He claims to have been a member of assassination teams that were active, in the 1980s, in Central America and Soviet-controlled Afghanistan. They carried no identifying clothing and used Soviet-made weapons. Shocking though the story is, the idea of turning up and shooting pro-Soviet tribal leaders seems quaint compared to the flying killer bot videos circulating on the internet. These tiny toy-sized drones, using facial recognition and mapping technology available in today’s smartphones, carry tiny explosives, enough to penetrate a target’s skull from 10cm away. Thousands of them could be released from transport aircraft flying over target cities, swarming through doorways and windows, killing enemies with surgical precision. (For instance, the AI could be programmed to activate the explosives only in the proximity of fighting age males.)

It was very realistic and convincing, but apparently the video, with its TED-talk like set up, was a fake made by a team of activists as a warning about what the future could look like. Nukes are so out of date! So indiscriminate in their destructive capabilities! But is the future already here? Who knows what is going in the top military labs in the world. And the technology does not seem to be all that complex. What gets invented tends to get used, does it not?

Are we heading into a world where wars will become will become more frequent and more lethal, thanks to technology? The Brussels period in Britain’s national life may be remembered as a time of relative peace, and the EU as rather benign. I will probably write about Brussels on occasion, but keeping in mind the bigger picture.

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