We are not quite in silly season yet but last week British newspapers reported the ‘barmy’ EU ruling that has prevented an award winning Kent vineyard from calling its Malbec, ‘wine’. Instead it is being forced to re-label the bottles as ‘fruit-based alcoholic beverage’. I have no idea if there is any truth in the story but it typifies our media’s negative approach to Europe. And it also reflects Britons’ instincts towards the ‘meddling’ and ‘bureaucratic’ motivations of Brussels.
As a northern European island nation with historic transatlantic and global ties, and one which has perhaps benefitted less from the EU project than other countries, Britain is not exactly its most enthusiastic member. But it would be wrong to interpret the surface whinging as deep seated hostility. The problem for pro-Europeans is that the EU has become near dysfunctional, leaping from crisis to crisis. This means that not only has any positive political vision of a European future dissipated but there is also a general sense of relief that the UK stayed out of the Euro.
Prime Minister David Cameron has hardly covered himself in European splendour when he chose to ‘veto’ rather than engage with the Eurozone solution. But the motivations here were very parochial. Having strained relations with some of his backbenchers in leading a coalition, this was an open goal with a bonus. For if there is one thing that the Conservative right like more than annoying Brussels, it’s annoying Nick Clegg. And on that point it is worth highlighting that if there is one thing that the Deputy Prime Minister cares about then it is Europe. The Liberal Democrat junior partners in the coalition are so vehemently pro-European that the last time the party lined up with the Conservatives it was to support John Major’s government in passing the Maastricht Treaty when John Smith’s opposition saw the chance to bring down the administration. Energy Secretary Ed Davey even told a journalist earlier this month that the coalition would be seen as more pro-European than New Labour.
And so the Conservatives have rarely been an out-and-out party of European hostility. Macmillan’s government applied (twice) for membership and Heath’s took us in. Even Thatcher signed the Single European Act and joined (against her better judgement) the ill-fated ERM. And for all the jibber jabber even the current leadership is the most pragmatic and adaptable since the 1960s. The Foreign Secretary’s antics are worth noting here because they demonstrate that the new rhetoric is largely for show. Promising to reassert the sovereignty of Westminster, he ignores the contradiction that in legislating for referendums should any future government choose to pass further powers to Europe, he breaks the first rule that no Parliament can bind its successors. Remember this is the same William Hague who was once leader of his party and went down to a crushing defeat in 2001 on a programme of ‘Save the Pound’ (from the Euro). It seems that while focus groups told him the British agreed with the stance, when it came to putting a cross on a ballot paper, it seems they didn’t really care.
And then there is Labour, a party which has come a long way since 1983 when its manifesto (‘the longest suicide note in history’ according to Gerald Kaufman) pledged to withdraw from the EEC. Under Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown the party engaged constructively with Europe and sister parties and today is broadly pro-European. Had Iraq not driven a wedge through the relationship, defence co-operation and foreign policy co-ordination might have developed further. And I remain of the belief that, a decade ago, had the powerful New Labour election machine turned its attention to persuading the British people to join the single currency, a ‘yes’ referendum vote would have been secured.
The big beasts of British Pro-Europeanism – the Clarke, Heseltine, Kennedy, (David) Miliband, et al – have all been very quiet on the subject since the credit crunch and this in turn has meant that more junior figures are reluctant to raise their heads. But I’m told that there are a solid twenty EU enthusiasts in the current Conservative parliamentary party. More than half of Labour MPs and all of the Lib Dems could be counted on to line up alongside them in the right circumstances.
The trouble is that the EU is hardly covering itself in glory. The single currency project stands on the brink of collapse, the infighting between member states is deafening and the democratic deficit in Europe has cracked open for all to see. The Eurozone itself is now the biggest threat to global growth. And remember, Europe’s difficulty isn’t so much too much debt (as is the case in Britain), rather it is the apportionment of it and the politically unpalatable solution to the crisis. The great danger is that Europe has gone from being the solution in our world to now embodying the problem.
So it is little wonder that British Europhiles are keeping a low profile. What exactly should they be arguing for? Europe’s global place is more unclear than ever. It is failing to respond strategically and until it can demonstrate a relevance to the new world order, pro-Europeans will have little to shout about and our lazy newspapers will continue spreading apathy.