Europe's Endgame: Within a Decade, Britain Will Hold a Referendum on Membership of the European Union-And the Yes Campaign Will Find Its Arguments Enfeebled by Lack of Exercise. Will Anyone Dare Make the Pro-EU Case?

By Behr, Rafael | New Statesman (1996), May 21, 2012 | Go to article overview

Europe's Endgame: Within a Decade, Britain Will Hold a Referendum on Membership of the European Union-And the Yes Campaign Will Find Its Arguments Enfeebled by Lack of Exercise. Will Anyone Dare Make the Pro-EU Case?


Behr, Rafael, New Statesman (1996)


It is getting harder to make the case for Britain's membership of the European Union for the practical reason that the alliance is changing faster than arguments in favour of it can be devised. The crisis in the eurozone will result in either a messy unravelling of the single currency or its renewal through deeper economic and political integration. Either way, the EU will be transformed and new rules of engagement between Britain and the rest of the continent will have to be set. The pressure to offer that revised arrangement to the public in a referendum will be irresistible.

Most Conservative MPs now fully expect their party's next manifesto to include the pledge of a vote on EU membership. Labour and the Liberal Democrats doubt they can avoid making the same offer, although they tend to be less enthusiastic about the idea.

The plebiscite is a demand usually made by opponents of Britain's EU membership. Supporters have always feared the potency of the sceptics' rhetoric of national liberation. They mistrust the campaigning efficacy of arguments based on trade advantage and fear of diplomatic isolation.

The pro-Europeans' reluctance to popularise their cause and their readiness to denounce their opponents as cranks and xenophobes has confirmed a small but vocal minority in the conviction that Brussels is an elite conspiracy against the common citizen.

Pro-Europeanism in Britain is as much a habit of government as an ideological position. Successive administrations inherit the legal and bureaucratic edifice of Continental entanglement and decide, on advice from civil servants, that acquiescence is the easiest path. That is as true of David Cameron's government as it was of Gordon Brown's and Tony Blair's. The difference is that Cameron has no permission from his party to make compromises for Europe's sake. Cameron is also unlucky to be in power during the biggest crisis in the history of the EU. The misfortune is compounded by the lack of attention he paid to Brussels before he entered Downing Street.

The Conservative leader has tended to view his party's hatred of the EU as a dangerous obsession - an old marching tune from the party's days parading up and down the unelectable fringe. Euroscepticism was to be placated internally but never advertised to the country. In opposition, Cameron pulled the Tories out of the moderate European People's Party (EPP) grouping in the European Parliament. In government, he has legislated for a "referendum lock" to prevent any future transfer of powers to Brussels being smuggled past the electorate.

Neither of those measures was meant to have any practical significance. Because Cameron found the European Parliament uninteresting, he presumed it was irrelevant. When the bill containing the referendum lock was drafted in the autumn of 2010, the Prime Minister thought Brussels had finished making treaties for a generation. He was wrong on both counts. Withdrawal from the EPP cut off diplomatic channels to a clique of powerful bosses of sister conservative parties on the Continent: Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the European Council president, Herman Van Rompuy, and the president of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso. Alienation from that club diminished Cameron's ability to influence negotiations on a treaty to stabilise the single currency at the end of last year. Those discussions then produced a treaty that Cameron could not sign for fear of provoking a ferocious rebellion in his party.

The subsequent decision to veto a pan-European deal, leaving most EU members to press ahead without Britain, was a watershed moment. It showed that the opposition culture of righteous anger is stronger in the Conservative Party than the governing tradition of diplomatic pragmatism. That places Britain's ruling party outside the European mainstream, which further diminishes Cameron's ability to shape events. …

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