We seem to be doomed to be living in interesting times. The UK’s relationship with the EU has crept up from being a curiosity of interest mainly to political wonks but barely impacting on ordinary people to a big issue. The level of public understanding is still pretty low though – there’s probably a sizeable minority who think that David Cameron’s veto of the proposed new EU Treaty means that the UK has left the EU altogether.
As we come to the end of 2011 this is the first of a series of retrospective posts linking back to my earlier musings, in case you missed them first time round.
An interesting development is the starting of some voices on the left of the political spectrum to question the EU rather than to stick to the line of the past 20 years or so of being almost blindly pro-EU. Jessica Reed in the Guardian wrote from a Euro-sentimentalist perspective of feeling European but finding much of the reality of EU laws to be difficult to support. Others have written that Ed Miliband ought to press for an EU referendum. This is interesting because there are a lot of good reasons for Labour to return to euroscepticism – the ability to take positive action to preserve British Jobs for British Workers. Its principal reasons for being pro-EU look rather thin – schadenfreude over Tory splits on Europe, social policies which they could have enacted themselves anyway, and so on.
There may have been some early hints of this in Ed Miliband’s criticism of the government’s reforms to the NHS on the basis of them applying EU Competition Law. This was followed up by his Conference Speech and criticism of regulation that did not distinguish between producers and predators. The criticism of the decision to award the contract for new Thameslink trains to Siemens who would build them in Germany rather than Bombardier in Derby can also be seen in this light as can criticism of the price of energy.
Before David Cameron’s veto there was also some evidence of greater sophistication entering the EU debate as it became a more real issue impacting on the economies of European countries. This did unwind a little as we returned to business as usual in political point-scoring about how we should have stayed at the negotiating table (even if an alternative position was not particularly put forward).
This is encouraging in that it might mean that 2012 could see a proper debate on the issue of Europe in the context of what is best for the UK in practice rather than simple partisan point-scoring. Apart from encouraging the left to take a more principled view it would, I hope, also require those on the right to do the same. If schadenfreude and a wish to accede to laws that a Tory government rejects are weak reasons for being pro-EU, so too are the right’s moans about bendy bananas and the need for a British Bill of Rights.
For me, this will only really fully come to fruition if “eurosceptics” are able to move from the odd position of clamouring for a referendum to coming out and saying no if they mean no. Rather than having a referendum which might give the “wrong” result, the issue, if important should be one of confidence in the government. The major parties need to decide what they would want to do as a broader programme of government and whether this is something that is prevented or hindered by EU membership. If it is hindered and this is to the UK’s detriment, the honest approach would be to say that we should leave. If membership is not so significant, this should be openly stated. A middle position of sniping or supporting the EU while giving a nod to the possibility of referendum is at least as much a ceding of sovereignty as membership of the EU itself – it is a sign of parties saying “we don’t really know, you decide for us”. Although it is giving this decision back to the people, what then if our politicians don’t have their hearts in implementing the decisions that might flow after a referendum?
The House of Lords is considering a proposal by a UKIP peer for a balanced inquiry into the benefits or otherwise of EU membership. I’m not sure that it is such a good idea for this to be done by the Lords in the absence of a set of policies that any potential governing party would really like to implement which are precluded by EU membership. The risk is that the report following such an inquiry would merely be used to cherry pick soundbites by either side of the debate. If it came out conclusively for or against continued membership it would really only impact parties which are anti-EU. If the benefits were found to outweigh the disadvantages it would push the eurosceptic position back to being one based only on Parliamentary Sovereignty and so something that would be unlikely to stir public passions. If the disbenefits were greater than the advantages it would give some impetus to eurosceptics, but still would need them to come up with policies that showed what they would do instead – it isn’t particularly meaningful to say that it would be better if we didn’t have to go via the EU to use our money for regeneration in the UK if the party making that point is one that does not believe in providing subsidies to businesses (as the “right” within UKIP and the Conservatives don’t).