Will Blair Lead Us out of Europe?

By Davidson, Ian | New Statesman (1996), December 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Will Blair Lead Us out of Europe?


Davidson, Ian, New Statesman (1996)


It may seem like a silly question, but on present trends it is hard to see any British government avoiding a split with the European Union inner core

Britain has been at odds with the rest of the European Union for so long that it sometimes seems to be part of a pattern which, in the nature of things, cannot change. The Dublin summit and the British media's response to a set of banknotes is couched in terms of national survival against a Continental enemy. It is as though we were immobilised on some nightmarish caricature of Keats' Grecian urn: the other member states are always pulling towards a more federal-type Europe, Britain is always pulling back, and nothing ever changes.

And yet this situation is not, in reality, at all immutable. Conflict over the direction and development of the European Union cannot be a stable or permanently sustainable state of affairs, either for Britain or for the EU, not least because the conflict between Britain and the rest is getting worse with every passing year: what used to be a difference of perception and aspiration is now only just this side of an irreconcilable ideological quarrel.

The argument is and has always been about what kind of union Europe should have. The majority of the other member states, and all the original founder members, want and have always wanted a union which, over time, becomes more politically integrated. The British political establishment does not want this, and never has. In that sense Britain is still, in political terms, a reluctant member of the European Union.

The paradox is that, in the economic context, the British government's claim that it is winning the argument in Europe is now plausible: deregulation, privatisation, market liberalisation and welfare reform are generally accepted in Europe as part of the new orthodoxy. But on the political terrain Britain is certainly not winning the argument: there is not the smallest sign that Germany, France and the other key countries of the EU are weakening in their commitment to a more integrated Europe.

The strategic question is increasingly simple: can the ideological face-off between Britain and its main European partners be sustained for a while longer without a decision either way? Or shall we soon have to face the choice between some kind of radical compromise with the majority in Europe, or alternatively some degree of parting of the ways?

This is not a question that can be finessed away by the prospective change of government after the election. Some people seem to believe that the conflict can be largely blamed on the unscrupulous machinations of Bill Cash and the Conservative Eurosceptics and on John Major's vanishing majority. Tony Blair, they imply, will win a comfortable majority in the next election, and therefore have greater freedom of movement; since he is instinctively pro-European, he will be able to do a reasonable deal with our main European partners.

This is dangerously complacent, first because the political conflict between Britain and the rest has become steadily more profound. In the early 1980s the main battles conducted by Margaret Thatcher were over an essentially second-order question: money and the budget. But the 1991 Maastricht Treaty set the first precedent for a split, when Britain demanded, and got, the right not to take part in what is, in political terms, by far the biggest project in the EU's history: the programme for European Monetary Union.

The creation of the single currency will almost certainly be the first step towards a political inner core of the EU. Alain Juppe, the French Prime Minister, recently said this in so many words: "The European single currency," he told the National Assembly, "is a political issue, and not a plaything for central bank governors. It is destined to be the bedrock of the European Union."

If Britain exercises its right to opt out of the single currency, it will, in effect, be opting out of the political heart of the union. …

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