European Movement UK

Britain's future is with Europe! Join the debate and put your opinion forward!

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 Donnelly

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  1. Brendan is absolutely correct and perspicacious in identifying the single currency as the major issue on which pro-Europeans should make their case. I have thought for a good many years now that it was both inevitable that Britain would join the single currency but that we should be taken into its embrace by a Conservative Government which party has been responsible for all Britain’s major European advances except perhaps the Lisbon treaty.

    The question is whether we join the euro from a position of strength or whether we are forced into it out of weakness, desperate to qualify and begging acceptance at a time when the pillars of sterling are collapsing about our ears. I hope it is the former. I would like to see the Coalition making the case for long term membership of the euro and the short term case for so arranging our finances that we might again be in a position to qualify. That implies a bigger case to be made first and business and private citizens persuaded of the arguments for joining. No one is better placed to make that case than the European Movement.

    We could start by pointing out that the pound has just been devalued by some 14 per cent. We are, in effect, all poorer as a result. It is convenient for the eurosceptics to laugh at Greece, pour scorn on Ireland, pity Spain and Italy, but there a euro is still worth a euro whereas here, we, with debts as large as theirs, find that our currency is worth substantially less than it was. It is not only the holidaymakers who are put out; for devaluation leads inevitably to inflation, inflation to high interest rates, high interest rates to difficult lending conditions and to weak or no growth. Hardly the basis for moving forward towards a greener and more sustainable economy founded on long term investment in renewable energy which is the central plank of coalition policy.

    So all power to Brendan’s elbow. Let’s make the case.

  2. Brendan Donnelly does not seem to understand how coalitions work. Inevitably their programmes represent compromise between the declared positions of the constituent parties.

    Looking from a Lib Dem viewpoint the published coalition programme is light years away from pre-election Conservative rhetoric and (unfortunately) probably more pro-EU by some degree than the current majority view of the electorate. I for one was stunned to hear the first foreign affairs statement by William Hague (of all people) containing only one negative comment concerning the EU – a complaint that not enough UK people were putting themselves forward for EU positions.

    It is also quite unfair to state “There is no reason, other than xenophobic prejudice, to believe that our partners will not make a success of these [eurozone] reforms.” Any responsible British Government would put eurozone entry on to the back burner at the present time.

    Certainly the European Movement must continue to be in the forefront of fighting the pro-EU cause and in particular trying to persuade public opinion in that direction. I think the formation of this coalition – as distinct from a Conservative majority government – is a highly positive step in this cause. Let’s give it a chance to prove itself before forming negative assumptions.

  3. Having read the conservative manifesto and then the coalition program, indeed eurosceptic rhetoric is rather energetic. However, the facts are somehow different. There are currently negotiations with France to pool or share military capabilities. If this becomes reality, this British government will have made more for European Defence, and therefore implementation of Lisbon Treaty than declared during the campaign.

  4. Euro membership is a dead duck as a political issue for at least the next parliament. With our deficit we cannot even satisfy the formal criteria of membership, though politically the UK would otherwise be welcomed with open arms.

    THE major issue for Europe is combating climate change and ensuring UK is signed up and sitting on the Eurotrireme’s rowing bench pulling together for a radical shift of the EU economy to a low greenhouse gas emission economy is where the focus should rest, not on fixating on a relatively minor structural issue of the currency we use in order to calculate our enormous debts.

  5. W. Nicoll writes:

    Let us be thankful for our mercies.

    Think where we would be if the Conservative Party had won a working majority; or if Labour had been given a new mandate.

    The essence of coalition is compromise. That is not bad training for Brussels.

  6. Stephen Quigley writes:

    We are indebted to Brendan for his thoughtful and measured critique.

    The wording of the coalition agreement makes discouraging reading taken at face value. And provides ammunition to LibDem members who are flocking from the cause in droves part because we have sold the pass on key policies. Although it has to be said, support for the EU has never been particularly strong in the party, just rather more positive than in the other two main parties. In the days when a referendum on the euro was a possibility, by no means all LibDems were in favour. And in my district a potential prospective candidate for next year’s local government elections, a party member, recently backed down because of our position on Europe.

    But in my view the agreement is not really worth a row of beans. Statements such as the one pressing for the European Parliament to give up Strasbourg or proposing a referendum on further transfers of power, whatever that may mean, are virtually meaningless in terms of practicality or political feasibility. It just goes through the motions and looks to me like a recipe for benign neglect or masterly inactivity, depending on our viewpoint. I should be surprised if in this parliament at least there is any demarche positive or negative on EU matters, and certainly any that is much publicised.

    On the euro, Ken Clarke said at the March 2007 Chatham House conference that he saw no immediate prospect of the UK joining the euro. Nothing has changed since then rather the reverse. Whether the eurozone crisis is over in fact, and I am far from sure it is, its image has taken a severe battering that makes many first generation sceptics in this country think how right they were in opposing it. It did the LibDem party no good in espousing it in its May election manifesto. For the foreseeable future in my view, adopting the euro is off the radar screen.

    On Turkey, no one in Brussels, Ankara or Washington seriously considers EU membership a realistic possibility, ever. Turkey is developing its strategic role in the middle east and the EU, especially Germany and France, with its fear of Muslim dominance, shows no sign of reducing its opposition. Can anyone really imagine Greece voting for it?

    The UK will soldier on in a curmudgeonly manner, continuing grudgingly to recognise the economic benefits of membership while continuing to wince at the disadvantages as portrayed by a eurosceptic media. There will be no enthusiasm for either greater participation or withdrawal. Meanwhile the EU will move ever further from the centre to the margins of international affairs as the BRIC countries assume their rightful dominance.

    As to the role of the EM, it will remain a custodian of orthodoxy, a refuge for the faithful and a sponsor of positive thinking about the EU especially among the younger generations unencumbered by the baggage of the years.

  7. Richard Grant (New Forest) writes:

    I think you will find that David Cameron’s Conservatives are far more Liberal than they use to be. My own local M.P. is a Conservative but wrote to me, confirming he is a Liberal and liked the Whigs! Personally I believe there are many Politicians who are quietly Liberals but simply will not ‘jump ship’. They also believe in our membership of the EU, but go with the flow to secure votes at election time by not promoting it. And yet the BNP hardly now exist and the UKIP are clinging onto – well nothing. We do have to sit tight for the moment until the Banks sort themselves out. Although it must be remembered it was Blair, Brown and Bush who lend us into this recession by turning a blind eye to lending and borrowing. In deed they themselves were just as bad. Here, the Conservatives were no better during the Thatcher era. Nick Clegg is thankfully a former MEP, whilst David Cameron is not. I think the Conservatives are on the change, as Old Tories simply die out. However our main problem is, as usual, a negative media.

  8. Kevin Hannon writes:

    UK Euro-scepticism Repeats a Folly of History.

    “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana.

    Recently Mr Brendan Donnelly wrote a penetrating and trenchant article about “The Coalition and its European Policy”. In it he tells us of the sorry progress of many UK governments into self-willed isolation from the EU and the consequent UK irrelevance to the future development of the Eurozone and the EU. As I read his article I could not but recall the French expression “Plus ça change, plus ça même chose”.
    I had just finished reading a book about a period of British foreign policy characterised by unwillingness to confront European realities; during which successive British governments of Right and Left had been unwilling to make firm commitments to European friends. They tried by all means to remain as detached as possible from European “entanglements” so as to be more capable of dealing with far-flung crises around the world and in the British empire. Decades of past history were disconcertingly similar to very recent history and present day policies.
    You have probably guessed that the book I had just finished prior to reading Brendan’s article was in fact about British foreign policy 1919-1939; decades infamous for the policy of appeasement. The policy of appeasement towards the rise of Fascism in Europe was a result of a general unwillingness by governments, press and public in the UK to confront and challenge the reality of the evil coming out of European mainland politics. In recent and contemporary UK politics, media and public we see a similar unwillingness to recognise, accept and be part of the good coming out of European mainland politics. In the inter-war period the policy of appeasement was a way for the UK to distance itself from the demolition of European civilisation: modern euro-scepticism is a way to avoid being part of the reconstruction of European civilisation. Whereas during the 1930s feeble British foreign policy failed to sufficiently demonise and confront the evil of fascism we now have the opposite. In modern times the strident unreality of confrontational British foreign policy vis à vis Europe fails to acknowledge the good coming out the EU; an EU that is systematically demonised by most of the British press.
    This Manichean alternation in UK evasions of European existential political realities finds its most recent expression in UK coalition government foreign policy: which is a sort of softly-softly euro-scepticism. It continues a long tradition. For about 30 years successive UK governments, Conservative, Labour and now Coalition, along with the British press, have appeased or openly supported the euro-sceptics. They have pandered to the obsolete, atavistic obsessions and distortions of those who want a weak, fractured, incoherent Europe of backward-looking, squabbling nation-states, the most populous of which would be no more than a middling province of China. Thereby euro-scepticism has gone from strength to strength and the UK has increasingly become an irrelevance to the great experiment of reconstructing European civilisation on an entirely new basis.
    Make no mistake about it; rampant euro-scepticism and UKIP policies are our modern UK equivalent of the inter-war policy of appeasement. Both appeasement and euro-scepticism were and are ways of denying existential political realities; and ways for the UK not to come to grips with the problems of the evolution of European civilisation.
    This persistent evasion of reality in UK foreign policy with Europe (accompanied by delusions of power east of Suez) is rather depressing. But I take heart from the life and words of a man who believed in facing European realities and believed in the UK being a constructive part of European civilisation. Mr Winston Churchill, a founder of the European Movement, spoke out eloquently and forcefully against the policy of appeasement. He was reviled in his time for facing European realities and speaking the truth about them. How little matters have changed. Now it is pro-Europeans who are the voices crying in the wilderness against unrealistic British beliefs about Europe.
    I think Mr Donnelly is right conclude that there is a need for the European Movement to be a strong, vigorous, clear voice in favour of whole-hearted UK engagement in the EU enterprise of civilisation. In so doing we shall not only prove ourselves true heirs to an honourable and necessary tradition of public truth telling. We shall also serve the future of our countries and of European civilisation, of which the UK is a part and not apart.

    KFH. 22.8.2010.

  9. There is no chance whatever of Great Britain joining the Euro. The whole ridiculous project has been shown up for the charade it is and indeed the most likely scenario is that of a messy collapse some years down the line.

    As for the EU itself, the tories have regrettably parker their campaign eu-scepticism, but this will doubtless re-emerge once the libdems have disintegrated.

    The backbenchers will not be silenced forever.

    My concern is that the longer this takes place to happen the harder it will be. On the other hand eu-scepticism is on the rise everywhere as the results of decades of corruption, incompetence and over-regulation take their toll on the hardworking scandinavians, Germans and Dutch. How long greece and spain will remain keen is hard to say once the money pit dries up.

    As for france – who cares ? they are responsible for the whole sorry mess.

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