Much was made last month of the failure by both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to mention Europe, or European issues, in any substantial way during the final presidential debate, a debate supposedly about foreign policy. This was due partly to the much-discussed shift in American attention towards the Pacific countries, but mainly thanks to the fact that the USA isn’t likely to engage in a war with a European country in the near future. War is what tends to focus American minds, so you can’t really blame them for that.
The Americans can be forgiven for not spending too much time worrying about Europe – they have bigger fish to fry, after all. In the UK, however, Europe is on the minds of many, especially mouth-frothing, eye-swivelling lunatics on the Conservative backbenches and those who work at the Daily Mail. Those are both generalisations, of course, but they’re fun generalisations, so let’s run with them.
Whatever happened to the pro-Europe wing of the Conservatives? It was Ted Heath who took the UK into the European Economic Community in 1973. It was Margaret Thatcher who wore a jumper adorned with the flags of European nations, a garment that has sadly fallen out of fashion in recent years. Yet now, the only Europhile at the top of the Conservative party is Kenneth Clarke, who has to be shaken awake by a junior minister at the end of the day.
Tory backbenchers persistently carp about the uselessness of the European project, the damage it is doing to British economic growth, the interminable red-tape shipped over from Brussels. No constructive solutions are offered from government benches with regards to EU reform or Eurozone growth packages; instead all the talk is of withdrawal, vetoes, and letting feckless Johnny Foreigner wallow in the filth he’s left on our doorstep, while we reshape ourselves in a thoroughly British way (that is to say, by becoming more like Switzerland.)
David Cameron, as has been noted before, is well and truly trapped by his party on Europe. He seems, from the outside, to instinctively favour a widening of British economic interests away from our traditional partners. This explains his trips to the Gulf, China and India – and is commendable. If the UK is to thrive in the future, these connections must be made. However, we must also not allow relations with our closest ally and largest trading partner – the EU – to wither and fester. It would not make good economic or political sense. Deep down, the prime minister understands this. Cameron is more Heath than Thatcher. Left to his own devices, he would attempt the consensus approach rather than the obstinate hammer methods favoured by his backbenchers – but he can’t do it. The party would not back him. He therefore continues to talk the big talk of vetoes and walkouts, which jeopardises Britain’s role in the future of Europe, and diminishes its ability to shape the direction the continent takes, harming our long-term prospects as well as those of the EU.
If the Conservatives do not have the answers on Europe, then, what of Labour? Well, unfortunately, the situation here is even worse. The party seems to have recognised that the soft Europeanism of the Blair era doesn’t equal votes in the post-Greece world of today – but again, constructive solutions aren’t on the Labour menu. Better to keep quiet. Say little. Snipe at the Prime Minister, of course, for his childish behaviour at EU summits and his marauding band of uncontrollable rebels – but, for God’s sake, don’t say what a Labour government would do about Europe. Play party politics, instead, with the EU budget. Back a referendum, as red meat to wavering Tory voters. For Labour, there is no defence of the European project. There is no-one talking about the continued benefits of EU membership, politically, economically and socially.
No politician, left or right seems to understand that the UK is, and forever will be, intrinsically linked to Europe and the EU project. It is in its DNA. Isolationism will not work for the UK. It cannot afford the ignorance shown by its cousins across the Atlantic. The two main parties are letting Britain down on Europe, preaching the language of rejection, failure and exit, at a time when it is all the more crucial for them to be in the meetings, at the table. They must take an active role in guiding the debate so that, when the crisis is over and the EU has been, as it must be, fundamentally reshaped, it is in a guise which suits the UK, as well as Europe as a whole.
-European Parliament: Rama under CeCILL.
-David Lidington: Foreign Office.