August 5, 2010
Commentators speculating about the likely course of the Coalition government’s European policy fall from the point of view of the European Movement into two main categories, the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists point to the careful and moderate tone which until now has characterised the new government’s utterances on European issues and hope that the Liberal Democrats will act as a brake on the more outlandish excesses of Conservative euroscepticism. The pessimists point to the negative and defensive tone of the Coalition agreement on European issues and wonder how effective the Liberal Democrats, as a junior coalition partner in a supposedly special relationship with the Conservative Party, will be in restraining over time the basic instincts of Mr Cameron and his colleagues, on European or on any other issues. Both sides in this argument have good points to make. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that the European policy of the Coalition will be less radically eurosceptic than it might have been under an exclusively Conservative administration. But that will not necessarily prevent it from being a British government which is more viscerally hostile to the European Union and to any deepening of Britain’s role within it than any of its predecessors in the past 50 years.
The text of the Coalition agreement on European policy repays detailed study. It begins in its summary paragraph with apparently positive words about Britain’s ‘leading role’ in the European Union. But even this lip-service to pro-European feeling is succeeded in the same paragraph by the aggressive insistence that no further powers should be ‘transferred to Brussels’ without a referendum and by a revealing description of the Coalition’s proposed European policy as a balance between ‘constructive engagement with the EU’ and ‘protecting our national sovereignty’. ‘Constructive engagement’ is a phrase more appropriate to Britain’s dealings with rogue states than with our closest partners; and the concept of ‘protecting our national sovereignty’ carries with it the clear and depressing implication that the Coalition regards ‘our’ national sovereignty as being under perpetual threat from the European Union, a threat which it behoves all patriotic Britons to join in repelling.
The remaining paragraphs of the agreement on European policy maintain this sour and grudging initial approach. There is talk of working to ‘limit the application of the Working Time Directive’, of a ‘referendum lock’, of a ‘Sovereignty Bill’, of defending the ‘UK’s national interests in the forthcoming EU budget negotiations’, of not joining in the establishment of a European Public Prosecutor. Above all, Britain will not join the euro in this parliament or make any preparations to do so, a prescription which ensures that it will be at least seven years and almost certainly longer before Britain can realistically consider again the question of membership of the European single currency. If the Coalition agreement is a fair guide to the next five years, the predominant tone of the Coalition’s European policy will be one of negation, refusal and standing aside from the European Union.
Those who have a more favourable view of the text of the Coalition agreement on European issues rightly point out that the purest milk of Conservative European policy would have demanded a commitment to the ‘repatriation’ of powers on social and employment issues from the European Union to the British government; that the agreement’s text on the proposed ‘Sovereignty Bill’ foreshadowed in the Conservative manifesto is vague enough to be an excuse for jettisoning it; and that the agreement seems to go some way towards meeting the Liberal Democrat view that European legislation in the area of criminal justice can contribute to ‘maximising our country’s security’. Given the manifest impracticality of the first two of these proposals from the Conservative Party before the General Election, Mr Cameron can regard himself as being well shot of them. As to the third, it will be extremely interesting to see how far this limited but genuine concession to Liberal Democrat sensitivities will lead to greater British participation in this developing area of European integration. But even if the area of criminal justice does not prove to be quite the stumbling block some had expected, the significance of this possible positive development pales in comparison with the self-willed isolation of the Coalition from what is undoubtedly the most important current vector of European integration, namely the single European currency.
Over the coming months and years, the institutional structures of the single European currency will be reformed in a way at least as important as was their original design. There is no reason, other than xenophobic prejudice, to believe that our partners will not make a success of these reforms. Already the worst moments of this year’s crisis seem to have passed. If Britain had been a country unsure about whether and in what circumstances it would join the euro, as it was under successive New Labour governments, its influence on this process of reform would have been limited. Now that the Coalition government has declared its hand on this matter so clearly, with the Conservatives being against British membership in any circumstances and the Liberal Democrats prepared to accept a delay of at least seven years, British influence on this question has become non-existent. Nor is this marginalisation of Britain within the European Union likely to be confined to simply monetary matters. Whatever the arguments for or against Turkish membership of the European Union, Turkish membership of the Union will hardly have been brought closer by Mr Cameron’s self-righteous advocacy of the Turkish case last week. A semi-detached member of the European club is hardly well placed to shape its future membership, particularly in as controversial a case as that of Turkey. Britain joined the European Community in 1973 not least to exert appropriate influence within its decision-making fora on matters likely to be of vital concern to the United Kingdom. The political culture of ‘opt-outs’, of ‘red lines’ and of special arrangements for the United Kingdom, pursued with increasing vigour by New Labour over the past 13 years, did much to reduce British influence within the European Union. The Coalition government seems set fair (or rather ill) to continue that baleful process.
For many years, the European Movement could reasonably see itself as one voice among mainstream political and public opinion warning against the dangers of hostility to the European Union. Now the situation in which the European Movement finds itself is very different. The political and public debate seems to revolve only around the degree of suspicion or hostility towards the European Union which is most advisable for our national interest, essentially whether semi-detachment or final estrangement from the European Union is the best course for our country. The European Movement may well wish to participate in that debate, arguing that semi-detachment, perhaps temporary, is less damaging than withdrawal. But the European Movement should not forget that there is another approach to these questions, one which believes that Britain would be better served by a fuller participation in the European Union, rather than agonising about its favoured degree of self-marginalisation. Those who share that view are no doubt a minority within the United Kingdom at the moment. But a European Movement which vigorously made the case for whole-hearted (rather than merely ‘constructive’) engagement in (and not ‘with’) the European Union might well find it had more potential supporters than it expected. There are advantages to being comfortably in the political mainstream. There are advantages to being excitingly outside the mainstream. Those who stand in the middle of the road get hit by the traffic coming from both directions.
Brendan DonnellyAuthor : European Movement UK