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Lost in Europe

How has Britain come to need a EU referendum? Because it has no European policy

27 October 2012

9:00 AM

27 October 2012

9:00 AM

As you read this, the Conservatives seem to be edging towards some promise, to be contested at the next general election, of a referendum in the next parliament over Britain’s membership of the EU. You can see how far opinion has moved by the fact that government ministers — Michael Gove only last week — can now say that we should contemplate getting out of Europe without the heavens falling in on them. If Mrs Thatcher had said anything like Mr Gove did, she would have been ejected from office at once.

Now of course we should welcome all genuine attempts to give our own citizens a fuller say in their constitutional future. At some point, there will have to be a referendum. While I would caution that, from the Eurosceptic point of view, it matters very much at which point, I regard a referendum as morally and politically essential.

But you will observe that the call for a referendum comes not because we all trust a Conservative government — if there were one — or a Labour government — if there were one — or the present coalition. It is because we don’t. The promise of a referendum from a mainstream political party is therefore not an emblem of its faith in the British people, but an effort to buy us off. It feels like an electoral gambit. A referendum promise is being used by government as a substitute for something that is missing. What is missing is the same thing that was missing, oddly, in the Thatcher era too. What is missing is a new policy.

Even though, as prime minister, Mrs Thatcher dramatically changed the rhetoric and attitude towards Europe, she never felt politically strong enough to change the policy itself. This most powerful of British prime ministers did not command a majority in her own Cabinet on this subject. For example, from before she came into office in 1979 until Britain finally, fatally entered in October 1990, the policy towards British membership of the ERM was that we would join ‘when the time is right’. So, throughout that time, Mrs Thatcher had to keep on pretending that the time might be right at some point, while in truth she fervently believed that it never could be. When she finally gave in, and agreed that we should join, it was not because she had changed her mind but because she had been defeated by her colleagues.

Even after the Bruges speech, which proposed a new course for the whole of Europe and put the nation state at its centre, there was no alteration in British policy. In that sense, one must be sympathetic to the British officials whom Eurosceptics — including, I must admit, myself — sometimes accuse of unpatriotic behaviour. The policy was always that Britain was a full-hearted member of the European Community, participating or trying to participate in everything that everyone else was participating in. In formal terms, the policy was the same as that of Ted Heath. You could argue that, in upholding it, officials were only doing their job. Even today, after more than a generation of rows, after the monstrous disaster of the euro, after the emergence, in fact though not in name, of a two-tier Europe, the policy has trimmed, but still has not fundamentally changed.

I checked this last week by ringing up the Foreign Office, and asking the bald question: ‘What is Britain’s European policy?’ This was quite an amusing experience. The polite officials I dealt with were rather taken aback, and hesitant about exactly what I wanted. After a few days’ consultation, however, and a call from me to remind them that I had not had an answer, they told me what the policy was.

You may be interested to know. ‘The choice between the status quo and leaving the EU completely is the wrong question’, says the policy, because ‘Europe is changing and we do not know how the EU will end up looking like at the end of this crisis.’ This does not sound like a policy — more like one of those bits of Foreign Office travel guidance about whether it is safe to visit a particular country. But the Foreign Office does go on to state that ‘membership of the EU is in the national interest of the UK… It is central to how we create jobs, expand trade and protect our interests round the world.’ Referendums, by the way, are stated to be a matter for the two coalition parties in their manifestos at the next election.

So what we have is a holding operation — partly a weak rehash of the long-standing position and partly the cautious observations of someone watching the progress of a fire on the other side of the street. There is nothing in the policy about what Britain actually wants to happen or how the European Union should be reformed or restructured. Last week, the Home Secretary announced that Britain was, temporarily at least, opting out, under Lisbon treaty arrangements, of 130 justice and home affairs regulations. That was good news. But we were not told whether the opt-out represents a reclaiming of our national rights, or merely a pause to reflect before we opt back in. So we have some action, but no clear direction of -policy.

The only piece of the stated policy given me by the Foreign Office which has a potential to move somewhere is the statement that ‘The government recently launched a review of the balance of EU competence to better understand what the EU does and its implications for our country.’ Such a review contains within it the chance for an enormous change in our approach. If that ‘balance of competence’ is wrong, what then? Can we alter it? The EU has its doctrine of the acquis communautaire — which, in Anglo-Saxon, means, ‘What we have, we hold.’ We should develop a counter-doctrine of what one might call a reacquis national: what we have lost, we want back.

But you cannot form such a judgment about the balance of competence without a prior belief about what should belong to the nation state. And it is this which British governments have always refused to formulate. Mrs Thatcher did outline such a formulation at Bruges. It persuaded the elites of Europe to sign her political death warrant.

What British leaders do not understand, nearly a quarter of a century later, is that their position now is much stronger than hers then. Those European elites have lost legitimacy in the intervening years. No modern European leader has the prestige of a Helmut Kohl. No eurozone state has an enthusiastic democratic mandate for its policy. No country can point to the EU leading it to salvation, and many in the eurozone can see it leading them to economic hell. Every projection of economic growth or technical innovation or demographic change shows the EU in relative decline. No exterior country, looking in, now holds up the EU as its model. The EU has far greater powers than it had in the 1980s, but far less prestige. It is an ancien regime, in a pre-revolutionary situation.

It seems very strange, then, that Britain, spared the worst by not being in the euro, remains so in thrall to the status quo. Our Treasury even calls for greater eurozone economic integration while opposing treaty change. It does not make sense. In the old days, Irish nationalists used to love saying, ‘England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity.’ Surely, today, the EU’s difficulty is Britain’s opportunity. When our leaders see this at last, they, unlike Mrs Thatcher, will reap the political rewards.

The development of the EU, and in particular of EMU, has given us a chance to test the proposition, which one can read every day in the cleverer newspapers, that the day of the nation state is over. That proposition is failing the test. The fate of a country like Greece shows the trap. Membership of the eurozone persuaded Greece to throw all normal financial caution to the wind. When catastrophe ensued, membership of the eurozone prevented Greece from doing what was needed — mainly a devaluation — to put things right. Critics can fairly point out that Greece was the author of many of its own misfortunes. But the point about being a nation state is not that you do not make mistakes, nor that you can act without reference to exterior realities. It is that you contain within yourself the capacity and the authority to put right what you have got wrong. Almost the most frightening aspect of the whole eurozone saga is the lack of this capacity and authority. In a democratic nation state, the voters can throw out the people who have made the mess. In an entity like the EU, the central bureaucracy imposes upon supposed democracies the representatives of its own disastrous decisions. For all their defects, nation states can be so constituted that their governments reflect the broad wishes of their people. In other words, they can be functioning democracies. We have seen enough of the EU to learn that it cannot. Isn’t that the most serious indictment that can be levelled against it?

The shape of the world today is actually being made less by blocs and more by nations than it was in the past. The United States and China, India and Brazil are nation states. It is as such that they make their decisions and drive their economic advances. The same is true of less powerful but stable countries like Canada and Australia. The same could easily become true once more of Great Britain. But for this to happen, it has to be sought. Instead of being vaguely in favour of parliamentary democracy, how about devising an actual policy for re–creating one, in the country where it began?

This is an adapted extract from the Margaret Thatcher Lecture, delivered this week to Centre for Policy Studies; for the full text, see

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