by Anthony Painter
In the space of three years, the prime minister has moved Britain from the EU’s cautious awkward customer to the self-destructively preposterous. Let’s be clear, this has absolutely nothing to do with some irresistible popular clamour for a referendum on our membership of the EU. It is entirely self-inflicted. Realpolitik has been ditched in favour of pusillanimous capitulation. This whole thing is about the neuroses of the Conservative party. This is not leadership; it is fear – of a phantom menace.
In fact, there are three phantoms that appear in this whole sorry saga. The first is a speech – a phantom speech. It’s has been long in the gestation and from the unconfirmed sightings that have been reported, it is an utterly vacuous statement of the bleeding obvious about jobs, growth, competitiveness, and the democratic deficit .
So the EU has to change. We are very lucky to have this pointed out – who knew? Douglas Alexander had it absolutely right in his speech at Chatham House this week when he argued:
“So significant are the potential consequences of this speech that it is tempting, indeed reassuring, to presume a degree of strategic thought or high public purpose in its preparation. The truth, I fear, is both more prosaic and more worrying. This speech is about politics much more than it is about policy. And its origins lie in weakness, not in strength.”
The second phantom, is the monstrous ghoul that is the federal super-state waiting to sink its teeth into these poor defenceless northern European islanders. This is the one that has Tory eurosceptics waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Their problem though, if you look at the argument in its elements, is more with the “state” element than anything else. Tory eurosceptics believe the alternative to EU regulation is no regulation. On this, like so much else they are entirely wrong.
Regulation would in fact just carry over, as we would still need to access the European markets. To gain access to the EU on a free trade basis, anything we imported or produced for the domestic market would have to be EU regulation compliant. And why would business want two regulatory standards?
Even if we decided not to trade freely with the EU, then we would still need to ensure clean beaches, toys without toxic chemicals, workplace safety, fisheries that weren’t over fished, proper information for consumers, farming subsidies, and fresh water standards. A world without regulation of the eurosceptic’s dreams is an apparition. Even if it could be achieved it wouldn’t last the first scandal over food poisoning, cod shortages, lead poisoning, horsemeat in burgers, or horrific increase in deaths in the workplace.
At least the eurosceptics are honest about the element of the one element of EU membership that causes the most political difficulty – freedom of movement of people. The prime minister’s re-negotiation argument ducks this and ends up being about the working time directive - hardly an onerous burden on business – and repatriation of regional policy. That is what we are jeopardising our membership for- it doesn’t make any practical sense beyond a bunch of big words. In all the interviews on our relationship with the EU over the last few weeks – every morning on the Today programme it seems – this basic fact is just completely ignored. Media coverage of this entire debate has been as vacuous as the speech which has prompted it.
Britain has never bought into the “ever closer union” vision of the European project. Nor should it do so. We are never going to love the European Union. We don’t particularly love our local authority either but we are glad it picks up our household waste on a Tuesday morning. We are in it because it is in our interests to be in it. There is a more honest euroscepticism than Tory state scepticism in disguise. That is the euroscepticism of Hugh Gaitskell.
This argument is about the value of formal sovereignty. It is not about interest and realpolitik but about political independence. There is a stronger argument that we secure greater influence abroad and control over our economic destiny by pooling that sovereignty but principled euroscepticism is perfectly respectable.
But no prime minister since Churchill has taken this view. The greatest transfer of sovereign power to shared power resources happened under Margaret Thatcher. She did it for because it was in our interests to further accelerate the creation of single market. And she did it without calling a referendum.
Some pro-europeans have decided to support an in-out referendum in order to “settle the issue.” It’s tempting: people want a referendum and euroscepticism has strengthened so there is an argument for attempting to take the wind out of its sails. But this argument is ultimately misguided. Firstly, people want a referendum on pretty much anything – ask any pollster. Do you trust yourself to make a better decision than those useless, self-interested politicians? Er, yes. Secondly, it won’t settle the issue. There will always be a British euroscepticism. There will be no final reckoning. Our perfectly healthy cultural scepticism as opposed to dishonest Tory euroscepticism will always remain and support and opposition to our membership of the EU will always ebb and flow – in accordance with perceived success of our European partners and domestic political leadership.
The only argument in favour of a referendum is should we decide it’s in our interests to leave – in any other circumstance it’s just too clever by three-quarters. Be careful what you ask for: just ask Nick Clegg who foolishly fell for the in-out referendum as decisive and re-legitimising choice argument. On the one issue where he might have had some impact, he is now completely irrelevant. When are the Liberal Democrats going to rid themselves and the rest of us of this political catastrophe?
But won’t the “going against the people” line be a political killer for anyone opposing a referendum? Actually no. In one of their many exchanges regarding the Maastricht treaty, Tony Blair once turned to John Major over the dispatch box and declared: “I lead my party, he follows his.” And that’s the argument: leadership in pursuit of the national interest.
It is not about being pro-european; it is about pursuing the British interest in and through the EU. This doesn’t mean ducking the hard questions such as immigration. There does have to be reform of, for example, access to benefits in line with broader welfare reform around contribution. We will need support of EU allies to do this. The “habitual residency” test for access to the benefits system is a weak one. The abuse of the system may be minimal but it is the potential for abuse that people find so unsettling. Matt Cavanagh and Sarah Mulley of the IPPR called this week for realism in the debate about immigration: honesty about what governments can and can’t control. Those who seek to pursue the national interest through the EU, including on immigration, have to be honest about the costs and benefits – transparency is key.
That is ultimately how to win greater public trust and confidence: leadership, transparency, and honesty. A referendum will simply be one side screaming out the costs of membership while the other screams out the benefits. It will get us nowhere and weaken our negotiating hand and international standing in the meantime. Instead, we could be clear about what we want to reform and build alliances around that – real change instead of posturing. And what of “democracy”? Well, a leader would simply say, “I will act in the national interest and if you disagree then you have a chance to vote me out at the next election.”
Which leaves us with the final phantom – or at least a spectre. For in the absence of leadership, the prime minister has got us into a bit of a pickle. The third phantom is Anthony Eden. For what David Cameron is sucking us into is a modern Suez. It is a moment, through hubris and inattention to global geo-political and economic reality, we are about to demonstrate our weakness rather than strength. There is a perpetual discussion about which former Conservative PM the current occupant of number ten most resembles. Seemed charismatic and charming before entering office but has looked increasingly out of depth and out of control the longer he has spent in it. Now he is about to commit a major strategic foreign policy error. He is not Thatcher; he’s Eden. And the national interest will suffer.
Anthony Painter is an author and a critic