When doing away with our yearly ritual of moving the clocks forward and back is condemned because a change would mean we’d be using “German” time I think we know we’re in trouble. When Conservative MPs like Julian Lewis feel able to go on record to criticise senior civil servants representing the UK in Europe for being too integrationist while others, such as Douglas Carswell, do so indirectly, it is clear that the forces of Euroscepticism are emboldened. Apparently the UK is sending people to Europe who are too positive about the whole European project. They are not sufficiently unyielding in their pursuit of the repatriation of powers.
Nigel Farage’s performance on BBC Question Time last week was typically monomaniacal. The institutions of Europe were portrayed as the very root of all evil. But you get the sense that, rather than being written off as a cartoon zealot put in the wingnut chair to provide some entertainment, his views increasingly resonate with at least some sections of the voting public. The New Statesman blog yesterday suggested that the Conservatives have more to fear from UKIP than from the Liberal Democrats, given the sentiment in the country. That doesn’t strike me as entirely implausible.
It would appear that the Eurosceptics are making all the running on Europe at the moment. Yet, it is not really helpful to talk in terms of Euroscepticism.
The term would imply, at the very least, that one is willing to be convinced that something is a good idea if appropriate evidence is forthcoming. It downplays the vehemence and virulence of the views. Much of the right wing political class is in the grip of an unreasoning Europhobia. And it claims that in adopting this stance it is only reflecting the views of its constituents. Such claims are questionable at the best of times, because the views of constituents are in turn a reflection of the predominant views in political discourse and the predominantly right-wing mainstream media. If one is fed an unremitting diet of negativity about Europe – even if it is based upon assertion, misinformation and downright lies – that will tend to shape the way one thinks about the issue.
The whipped defeat of the Tory backbench motion for a referendum on the EU was justified by the Government as a question of timing. Now is not the time to be distracted by this type of debate. And there will be a referendum when next there is a major treaty renegotiation. That would tend to imply that there will be a right time. Yet critics of this argument rightly point out that there may well be another reason for not holding the referendum now: the fear that the majority of the population would vote to leave the EU. Failure to hold a referendum can be cast as a failure of democracy – further evidence of a political class that is out of touch.
The opinion polls certainly suggest that those who are positive about Europe and EU involvement represent a minority of the population. So the critics may well have a point. If we draw on the experience of the AV referendum we might also conclude that as and when a referendum happens then the well-resourced right-wing faction is likely to fight dirty. We already operate with a discourse in which obvious fictions – such as European regulation being the main problem preventing UK economic growth – are allowed to exist unchallenged. Imagine what it would be like if the prize of EU exit were up for grabs. Serious and reasoned debate would be out the window.
Those who believe that there is much that is positive about the UK’s involvement in Europe need to be making the arguments more clearly and more forcefully now. If a pro-EU campaign only gets going when a referendum heaves in to view then it will be too late. The anti-EU sentiment that will have accumulated by then will be too powerful to counteract.
In yesterday’s Observer carried an article by Nick Clegg started to make a case for Britain in Europe. He made some sensible points about it being unwise to seek to reconfigure powers now. And he made some sound points about the economic benefits to Britain of being part of the European Union. But the case was rather defensive. It was largely about the negative effects of the country moving itself outside of the EU. It was also a case that was studied in its focus upon the economic. This is, one must surmise, seen as safer ground. But it impoverishes the idea of the European project. The goal was one of harmonious co-existence on several different levels, not simply as a free trade area. This broader case goes unstated. In the context of the crisis of the Eurozone, with the various countries being accused of being spendthrift and feckless, it is not just in the UK that this broader idea seems to have been momentarily misplaced.
I am also not convinced that Nick Clegg is the right person to be spearheading the case for the defence. Clearly his article was in part about the delicate business of coalition politics. But if the broader objective is to sway the undecided or convert the sceptical then he isn’t going to do it. Many Liberal Democrats think he is doing a great job. Most everyone else seems to think he is an untrustworthy liar and a traitor. He came in to UK politics via Europe. Many people are expecting him to return to Europe after his time in the Coalition. If he is penning newspaper pieces extolling the virtues of Europe they will be interpreted more as an attempt to secure future preferment than a serious argument in favour of Britain in Europe. While it is not something I’d generally advocate, if you look at the comments under his article on CiF you’ll get some sense of the negativity that surrounds him. As with the AV vote, Clegg’s interventions don’t really help the case because opponents could just invoke his untrustworthiness over tuition fees as the trump card.
I’m not saying these views are justified for a minute. They may well be entirely erroneous. He may well be an honourable man trying to do the best in adverse circumstances. But the fact that these views are out there and that the issue can be constructed in this way cannot be ignored or wished away. I believe that the case for Britain in Europe needs to be led from elsewhere if it is going to have any chance of success.
This is not about Europhilia. The British have been sceptical about the benefits of the European project since its inception at the start of the 1950s. That isn’t going to change. And it is not about accepted that the institutions of the EU are without blemish. There is plenty about the efficiency and democratic accountability of the EU that needs to be improved. And it may well be that it is time to go back to first principles and ask what the point of the EU is. But that is a serious question worthy of proper consideration.
One of the most interesting pieces on the EU issue to appear over the last day or so is by my fellow contributor at Dale & Co, Lionel Zetter. He poses the question What is the EU for?. He goes beyond the peculiarities of the English political debate and locates the EU in its broader context. In doing so he identifies two profoundly different future scenarios:
if the EU is just a mutual admiration society and protection racket for individuals and countries who are determined to live beyond their means to the detriment of the rest of the world and of their own children, then it should be left to burn to the ground. If, however, it brings together independent nation states with their own quirks, foibles and genius to address some of the great issues of the age, then it deserves to survive and prosper. Now is as good a time as any to decide what the EU should look like going forward: are we to summon in a new and energetic age of European enlightenment, or are we to become an increasingly depressing museum which cannot afford to repair its own structure and is therefore doomed to decay and eventual collapse?
Zetter is no great Europhile. But here he gives a flavour of what a much more positive non-party political case for Europe would look like. The question is who is going to make it. Because surely someone needs to do so urgently .