October 19, 2012
A senior European figure, commenting on David Cameron’s demeanour during European Councils, is reported to have said “He is just not interested”. Margaret Thatcher, John Major & Tony Blair, whatever the other distractions of their premierships, were keen followers of the European debate. Only Gordon Brown, in the terminal stages of his decay, can be accused of such a lack of interest in matters European. Unfortunately “not interested” is not an acceptable position for a British Prime Minister in the twenty-first century. It was a dangerous posture for Lord Salisbury in the days of “Splendid Isolation” at the height of British imperial power. Yet it can stand as a symbol of the strange sense of dislocation which has currently seized so much of the Westminster bubble for whom “Fog in channel – Europe cut off” seems to be simply a self-evident truth.
I have recently been part of a jury, summoned by EurActiv on the occasion of forty years of British membership, to judge the forty Britons who have most influence over current European Union policy. My lips are sealed as to their identity until the public announcement of our conclusions on 14th November. I will however bet that the top three names will not be recognised by upwards of 80% of the House of Commons. Whatever the limitations of such an exercise, it did cause me to think long and hard about who is influential in the European debate in Britain, and whose voices would be crucial in a referendum.
As we drift, apparently aimlessly, towards such an In/Out referendum in 2016, it seems sensible to rank the uncertainties in some kind of logical order. We can then contemplate the series of Russian dolls that such a ranking implies. It is my belief that the innermost ‘doll’ has now been settled. The euro will survive as part of a deal that creates a political and fiscal union for which the Germans are prepared to pay. The second question therefore is what should Britain’s response be? We can leave. Or we can catch up with the rest of the Union. Or we can define a permanent second class citizenship, hope to negotiate such a position with our partners and then sell it to the British electorate. The risks in such a process are obviously immense. The current Polish Foreign Minister, with the historically significant name of Sikorski, pointed out in a speech at Blenheim Palace on 21st September that Britain, and in particular the Conservative Party, should not expect sympathy or support from the rest of Europe, both inside and outside the Eurozone. Radek Sikorski who, during his time at Oxford, was a member of the Bullingdon Club, demolishes Eurosceptic myths with commendable vigour. His conclusion is worth quoting at length. “Now, Britain’s leaders need to decide once again how best to use their influence in Europe. The EU is an English-speaking power. The Single Market was a British idea. A British commissioner runs our diplomatic service. You could, if only you wished, lead Europe’s defence policy. But if you refuse, please don’t expect us to help you wreck or paralyze the EU. Do not underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20th century. You were not occupied. Most of us on the continent were. We will do almost anything to prevent that from happening again.” As a service to the Conservative Party, I have posted his speech on my website.
The assumption that Britain can lead a second tier group of countries is an old British fallacy dating back to our departure from the Messina Conference and the subsequent creation and failure of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Whatever their reservations there are no other countries seriously contemplating leaving he European Union. They long ago came to terms with the reality of power for all European countries, whether big or small, in a globally dangerous world. It is a good example of what Mr Sikorski refers to as the “False consciousness” currently infecting British attitudes to Europe.
There is still some hope to be drawn from the moment of national re-definition provided by the visual drama of the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics. As an exercise in identifying what it is to be British in domestic policy, it was a stunning success. It took competition from the Right and co-operation from the Left and wrapped them in the rich garments of national creativity. However as an exercise in creating consensus over Britain’s place in the world, it did not get much beyond longitude, language and likeability. In all its extended symbolism it did not mention the British Empire once. It had one passing reference to the First World War and no reference at all to the Second World War, to the horrors of Communism or emergence of a radically re-shaped world order. The Prime Minister now wants us to remember 1914 with a series of publically funded theatrical events and exhibitions, yet he does not seem to have recognised that 1914 was the start of the two great civil wars in Europe in the twentieth century. The decision to give the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union for its contribution to peace in Europe is merely sniggered at by many senior Britains who should know better. One cannot wipe out a hundred years of history and expect to navigate successfully the much more dangerous territory of the twenty-first century.
As the senior partner in the governing Coalition, we must first examine the role and mindset of the Conservative Party. This is the Party which I joined nearly fifty years ago and of which I am still a paid up member. I will admit to being close to despair as I contemplate its eccentric behaviour on matters European amongst its activists, constituency officers and intelligentsia. One can make many criticisms of the Conservative Party during its long history including its slowness to repeal the Corn Laws or respond to the rise of Fascism, but surely there can never have been such a period of sustained frivolity as we have now witnessed on the subject of Europe from the signature of the Maastricht Treaty onwards. Europe plays the same role in the mind of the Conservative Party as is played by abortion, creationism and birther conspiracies in the fevered mind of the Republican Party. On what basis one might ask has the Conservative Party fallen out of love with Europe? It can’t surely still be bent cucumbers and long abandoned menus for the British sausage. Are the worthies of the Party really up in arms about the threat to our liberties from the European Court of Human Rights? How many of them know in any case that this Court bears no relationship to the European Union itself. Do frightened families gather round their kitchen tables at night to discuss the imminent dangers of the European Arrest Warrant? How many British families would want us to go back to the days of ensuring that junior doctors were regularly deprived of sleep as part of the natural funding of the NHS? How many British stalwarts rise every morning determined to repel Spanish fishermen, French onion pedlars and German car salesmen? Surely we have grown beyond such tedious and outdated stereotypes? Edwina Currie, when relieved of the burdens of office and transferred to the wider realms of radio, used to say that the Westminster bubble had no concept of what Europe meant for anyone under thirty. “Forget the Single Market and such abstractions” she would say. “For the young, Europe is about the ability to travel unhindered to rock concerts in Barcelona or Berlin”.
Opinion pollsters still ask the same questions they have been asking since we joined. They ask about public understanding of institutions; which we do not teach properly in our schools. They ask our electorate to assess whether or not Europe has been good for us; without presenting any statistics. They ask whether we should stay or leave; without presenting any information on the cost of departure. The public, who rank Europe well down their list of priorities, respond with the pollster’s equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders and the raising of two fingers. Nobody asks them to seriously contemplate the impact of leaving the European Union on their jobs and lifestyles. Nobody asks them to explain how their country would be better off outside all the great trading blocs or why inward investment should come to a Britain which has deliberately excluded itself from the rest of the Continent. George Orwell in “1984” envisaged a world in which Britain was part of the megastate of Oceania, basically the Anglosphere plus Latin America. Oceania was in permanent conflict with the two other megastates of Eurasia and Eastasia. Even the unsavoury option of membership in a modern day Oceania would not now be open to a retreating Britain.
Pro-Europeans in all parties are currently perilously poised between hoping that such a referendum will never take place or deciding to knuckle down and organise for one as a precaution. The argument for the ostrich approach is that the Eurosceptics have had a long time to prepare the ground; they have rehearsed their arguments; they have polished their bogus statistics and they have tested their claims on focus groups. It would indeed be unwise to fight a referendum on details of the European Union’s administration as selected by its opponents. Rather we should begin to explore the whole new area of “the Cost of Non-Europe”. Regular readers will recognise the reference to the 1992 “Cost of Non-Europe” which was used to sell the Single Market. This “Cost of Non-Europe” would be a careful calculation of the costs of Britain leaving Europe.
We cannot do better than start with the European Single Market, which the British Government claims is close to the heart of the British electorate. The idea of such an arcane concept being close to the heart of anybody is a bit difficult to take, but let us assume that we have time to explain that it refers to the four freedoms of the Single Market – the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. The good Mr Sikorski quotes the UK Government to the effect “That every UK household “earns” between £1500 and £3500 every year thanks to the existence of the Single Market. That alone works out at between five and fifteen times of the UK’s net budget contribution per household. It’s a bargain.” I took the opportunity of a grand UK Government Conference on 18th October entitled “Twenty Years On – The UK & the Future of the Single Market”, to enquire why the Government did not make more of the benefits to the individual of the current success of the Single Market. It is a sad truth that we only value that which we can measure. Surely if these figures mean anything they could be used as a metric for assessing the desirability or otherwise of future projects such as an energy grid or the improvement of transport infrastructure. I foresee an annual event to announce the latest per capita gains from the Single Market in the spring of each year. Initially this might be a British event, but surely it could be expanded across the Continent.
The disorganisation of the pro-Europeans in Britain remains pitiful to observe. There are the old warhorses such as the European Movement, whose AGM I attended last week. The possibility of British withdrawal gives the European Movement a clear purpose for the first time in forty years. Their first task must surely be to consult the yellowing membership records and tempt back the thousands of lapsed members. Tragically most of the energy and knowledge about the European Union is currently in the heads of the British community in Brussels. However they seem to increasingly behave like a colony lost in space. They remember their home planet, but have no particular desire to return. In my view an early injection of their expertise and enthusiasm into the home based pro-Europeans is an urgent necessity. In addition to the European Movement there are relative newcomers such as Business for a New Europe and Nucleus, although there seems to be little effort to co-ordinate their ideas.
I was recently visited by a student writing his PhD on the Youth Movements’ role in the 1975 Referendum. By consulting only those records which are academically respectable, he had entirely missed the key point about such groupings. The significant fact was that they were not divided by party groups, rather they had taken the shared experience of all party campaigning over British membership in 1973 and given it expression in each of their party activities. A similar trend took place at adult level. A fine example of the persistence of such social groups over time was provided this week at the launch of Andrew Duff’s pamphlet “On Governing Europe”. While this was held in Europe House, it was sponsored by Policy Network. Peter Mandelson introduced the pamphlet. His voice remains as hypnotically smooth as it was forty years ago when he was a member of Students for a United Europe. The room was packed with an audience of pro-Europeans that stretched way beyond any definition of Centre Left. The timing and venue of the meeting had special resonance. Europe House is at 32 Smith Square, which was of course for many decades the building which housed Conservative Central Office. While we spoke the European Council was in session in Brussels. Andrew’s pamphlet is, as one would expect, a mine of useful information on institutional developments in Brussels since the start of the financial crisis. However its main recommendation – that the UK should be offered an Associate Membership of the European Union fails to live up to the high quality of the rest of the pamphlet. He anticipates such an Associate Membership being shared by countries such as Serbia, who are not yet full members, or Turkey, who on this plan, would never be full members. Peter Mandelson made an elegant case not for Associate Membership, but for defining a holding space into which the UK could retreat to await the arrival of a pro-European Government able to take advantage of the success of a re-launched euro, whose fundamental flaw had been repaired by the creation of a deeper Federal Union amongst the core members. The largely unspoken assumption of the gathering was that David Cameron had so totally failed to control the Eurosceptic urges of some of his backbenchers, that he had effectively killed off the chances of continuing a Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition after 2015.
The assumption of political enemies of the Conservative Party is that the Prime Minister had lost control of his party from the moment he was unable to deliver House of Lords Reform. His carefully crafted neutral positions in Europe had been abandoned unceremoniously during the Party Conference season. The Conference Fringe saw pro-European meetings outnumbered by Eurosceptic meetings by approximately seven to one. The great Boris show must have further un-nerved the Prime Minister. In my view Boris has peaked far too early for someone with serious leadership ambitions. However he has caused figures such as Michael Gove to paint themselves as anti-Europeans just in case there is an early vacancy. Philip Stephens in the Financial Times, the most subtle of the talking heads on Europe, concludes that David Cameron has lost all “soft power” by inept use of the veto. If it is true that he is genuinely “uninterested” in European negotiations we would seem now to be doomed to watch the rapid breakdown in quick succession of the Coalition Government, the cohesion of the Conservative Party and the loss of Britain’s influence in the European Union.
19th October 2012