I am trying my best to get excited about David Cameron’s ‘big speech’ on Europe.
Mainly I am failing.
I can think of a number of questions facing the UK today which are worthy of a fuss and really fundamental for the future wellbeing of the country:
- How do we restore economic growth?
- How do we tackle the disgraceful inequality that blights our society?
- How do we reduce the deficit without wrecking public services?
- How do we compete with the emerging economies and reorientate our economy towards manufacturing and technology?
- How do we stop Alex Salmond breaking up the UK?
- How do we tackle climate change?
- How will we deal with emerging security threats?
The issue of renegotiating our relationship with the EU wouldn’t even make my top 100 worries list if I was prime minister.
Most ‘conflicts’ with the EU ought to be yawn-inducing. They are only exciting if you are the kind of libertarian obsessive that thinks that common standards of health and safety rules are a threat to your liberty, or the kind of nostalgic that thinks fishery disputes should be settled by frigates not by committee meetings in Brussels.
The ‘ever closer union’ clause in the EU’s founding treaty which exercises anti-Europeans so much is a piece of idealistic rhetoric which is only actually believed in by a fringe of federalist countries which are so small they don’t have much effective sovereignty anyway, and by the anti-Europeans. I can live with Franco-German idealistic rhetoric as a replacement for hundreds of years of France and Germany settling their differences by periodically slaughtering each other’s youth on the battlefield. It was also in the treaty we signed up to in the 1975 referendum, so saying we didn’t know what we were getting into and thought it was just a common market is disingenuous to say the least.
I don’t think Cameron really thinks that there are great issues of principle between the UK and EU that need renegotiating.
I think he does know that he has a huge and growing political problem called UKIP.
Nigel Farage is the Tory leader a big slice of the Tory core vote has always wanted, and is untainted with all the messy business of government that the real Tories are now mired in. It’s no coincidence that UKIP’s rise to nearly 10 per cent in the polls has coincided with Labour opening up a 10 per cent lead. Cameron has to get most of those votes back. And he has to manage a substantial rightwing group in his parliamentary party, which is growing with each election as ageing, unrepresentative and extreme constituency associations increasingly refuse to select candidates who don’t tick an anti-European box. He has a group of MPs who would prefer opposition to being in coalition with the Lib Dems, suspect Cameron finds Nick Clegg more amenable that he finds them, and if they thought they could get elected as UKIP would be a lot more comfortable in that party than the one they are currently in.
So Cameron needed to do something dramatic and to try to make an internal party problem a national one by throwing it out to a referendum.
We need to avoid rising to the bait.
Let the Tories rant and rave about Europe. They did it in 2001 and 2005 with rhetoric about saving the pound and it got them nowhere. It will get them back some of their core vote from UKIP. But not all of it, because there are many other reasons, such as immigration and gay marriage, why UKIP is more attractive to the reactionary right than the Tories are. And it will lose swing voters in equal or greater numbers. Not because your archetypal swing voter is not eurosceptic. They are. But because the Tory MPs that will come out of the woodwork to rant about this look like swivel-eyed fanatics who you wouldn’t trust to run a parish council, and all the time they are prioritising this it is obvious they are not remotely focused on the real issues of jobs and growth and cuts that are making people’s lives dreadful.
We should be firm in saying we would not bother holding a referendum, for purely domestic political reasons (Tory MPs running scared of UKIP) when one of the options – ‘out’ of the EU – would be so suicidal for us as a nation that it makes the question meaningless, and when there are countless other more vital questions our politicians should be focused on.
There is already provision, which Labour backed, in the 2011 European Union Act, to hold a referendum if there is a real, rather than cooked-up, reason to: ie a substantive change in the balance of sovereignty between the UK and the EU such as increased majority voting.
In the event that an in-out referendum ever happens we will need to calmly campaign as the real eurosceptics as opposed to europhobes – people who are not starry eyed about the EU but are in it to get the best deal for the UK and sceptically judge each EU proposal on its merits and impact on our national interest. In a fantasy world where we can have a cost-free exit from the EU I am sure a majority of Brits would prefer not to be part of it, and to have a trade. but not political, relationship with the rest of Europe on Norwegian or Swiss lines. But in the real world we don’t have that option. If we want any residual influence on the world stage we need to recognise that the US only takes us even remotely seriously because we are EU members.
Why would any future partner take us seriously if we were to walk away from one of our most important multilateral treaty obligations? If we want any inward investment we have to realise that quite aside from bilateral trade with Europe, US and Japanese and BRIC companies only come here because we are a useful English-speaking gateway into the wider EU market.
Britain outside the EU wouldn’t be Switzerland or Norway. They are small countries with great prosperity based on big inbuilt advantages that we don’t have. It would be like Britain in the 1960s. A country in economic and geopolitical decline feeling lonely, isolated and jealous of its continental neighbours and their project. There was a reason we joined the then EEC. It was not idealism. It was desperation, and a realisation that we had made a huge strategic mistake standing aside from the original six in 1957 and pursuing the half-hearted EFTA project with, you guessed it, minnows like Norway and Switzerland.
Cameron’s announcement makes him look a laughing-stock to our EU partners, with Farage as the tail wagging the Tory dog. It would be funny if it wasn’t tragic. Compared to Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande, who are serious statespeople, we are fielding a weak lightweight who can’t control his own party and is letting UKIP set his political agenda. We need to expose the insanity of calling our EU membership into question, the unfitness for office of a PM who puts his party’s poll rating and management of his fringe backbenchers above the national interest, and the cynicism of trying to push this up the political agenda to distract voters from the damage the coalition is doing to our economy.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.