Dan Hannan

We can trust Cameron on Europe

Eurosceptics are not ‘swivel-eyed’ or psychotic, says Daniel Hannan, and it’s only Labour propagandists who think the party is divided on this issue

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Eurosceptics are not ‘swivel-eyed’ or psychotic, says Daniel Hannan, and it’s only Labour propagandists who think the party is divided on this issue

As the Conservative conference got underway, newspapers led with reports of a right-wing insurgency against David Cameron. For four successive days the story continued: there was, we kept being told, an almighty barney about whether the Conservatives would hold a referendum if the Lisbon Treaty were already in force.

I was nonplussed and, to be honest, slightly miffed. If there really was a Eurosceptic rebellion, why hadn’t anyone told me? More to the point, what exactly was I supposed to be rebelling against? The Irish referendum didn’t seem to me to change anything: Lisbon was still unratified, and might remain so until the British general election. In the meantime, I wanted a British plebiscite, and so did Cameron.

Just in case I had missed something, I phoned some of the flintier Tory souver-ainistes: Philip Davies, Douglas Carswell, Roger Helmer, Bill Cash (‘the most notorious Eurosceptics’, as I heard a BBC correspondent call us this week; you somehow can’t imagine a Beeb presenter talking of ‘the most notorious climate change activists’ or ‘the most notorious anti-death penalty campaigners’ or ‘the most notorious Euro-integrationists’, can you?).

It turned out that we had all independently reached the same conclusion. David Cameron, we felt, was genuinely working for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and not simply going through the motions. There was, moreover, a reasonable chance that he would succeed. The assumption that Václav Klaus, the vinegary Thatcherite president of the Czech Republic, would roll over to humour the Eurocrats, was more than a little patronising. And if Klaus’s signature was not on the document by the time Prime Minister Cameron came back from Buckingham Palace, there would be an immediate British vote: the requisite legislation had already been drafted.

If the Conservative leader was not in time to stop the treaty going live, we felt, it would be slightly odd to hold a retrospective referendum. Better by far to negotiate the unilateral repatriation of powers to Westminster. And not simply the powers conceded at Lisbon: also a lengthy list of prerogatives surrendered at Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice. This, we agreed, would in some ways be better than a Lisbon referendum: instead of simply returning to the status quo ante — in other words, where we are now — it would allow us to improve on our present situation, recuperating many of the competences abandoned by the Blair and Major governments.

Paradoxically, such a dispensation might be easier to negotiate, since we would simply be asking the other member states to return powers to Britain, not presuming to tell them how to relate one to another. There is plenty of precedent: opt-outs from defence policy, the social chapter, the euro and the passport-free zone didn’t require the EU to reorder its institutional arrangements.

Any new deal, we concluded, would need to be put to the people. David Cameron’s pledge, after all, had been unequivocal. ‘Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee,’ he told the Sun exactly two years ago. ‘If I become prime minister, a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these [Lisbon] negotiations.’ At the very least, this must mean a referendum on whether Britain participates in them.

All in all, we were optimistic. Cameron, after all, had earned the benefit of the doubt. When he took his MEPs out of the palaeo-federalist EPP, he demonstrated that he would rather keep faith with British voters than suck up to the European establishment.

Nothing, though, was going to deflect certain political correspondents from the narrative they had scripted. Day after day, headlines appeared about Tory Euro-rows, without any sustaining quotations. Flat denials made no difference. When Sky News asked me what I felt about Cameron’s policy, I replied that I was perfectly content, that of course I felt there would need to be a referendum in due course, and that I was optimistic about getting one. The presenter then turned to camera and told his viewers that they had just heard for themselves how ‘angry’ I was about David Cameron’s ‘refusal’ to guarantee a referendum.

As the week wore on, I began to realise something. When leftie journalists say: ‘David Cameron is under pressure from his Eurosceptics’, they’re not really talking about the referendum. They’re not even talking about Europe. What they actually mean is: ‘Look: these scary right-wing psychos are taking over the Tory party.’

The word ‘Eurosceptic’ rarely appears unadorned in leftist discourse. It almost always comes attached to epithets: ‘extreme’, ‘obsessive’, ‘swivel-eyed’ — curious adjectives to apply to the 80 per cent of British voters who want a Euro referendum. (Actually, I have learned the trick of moving my eyeballs independently of each other, and occasionally perform it to amuse small children, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never done it while discussing the Lisbon Treaty.)

In the pages of The Spectator, the word Eurosceptic simply means someone who opposes the political unification of the EU. In other parts of the press, though, the word has very different connotations. As Sholto Byrnes, the Lib Dem-supporting assistant editor of the New Statesman perspicaciously put it last week:

‘[Labour’s] propagandists are salivating at the opportunity to paint the Tories as divided once again on Europe, with “hardline” — code for near-lunatic extremist — right-wingers cast as the pantomime villains. “Behind you, Dave!” they call, less to warn him than to make the public aware of the grotesques with whom he chooses to associate. And there it is, that old calumny that to be Eurosceptic is to be right-wing, not just in a free-market sort of way, but in a hang ’em, flog ’em and — whisper it behind closed doors — a “wogs begin at Calais” sort of way. Cameron can’t be trusted, is the message, not when he is in hock to these mad Eurosceptics, a label which is now used to imply opposition to virtually every piece of progressive legislation from Catholic emancipation onwards.’

We can only wonder at the Gramscian genius of those who have carried out this semantic inversion. To want to preserve your parliamentary democracy is extreme; to want to give more power to unelected officials is moderate. To consult the people is swivel-eyed; to connive at their disfranchisement is level-headed. To accept the verdict of a referendum is obsessive; to keep coming back with the same question, over and over again, is pragmatic.

This last especially annoys me. I have rarely met anyone as obsessive as the Eurocrats who support the European constitution. For eight years, they have clutched at their sacred text like millennarian cultists, undeterred by its repeated rejections at the ballot box. Yet it is their opponents who are routinely called ‘obsessive’.

I think I have worked out what is bothering the Euro-zealots. If David Cameron does indeed call a referendum, it will be very hard to carry on with the pretence that the opponents of European amalgamation are either football hooligans or Blimps. Cameron, in short, threatens to make the Eurosceptic cause look as moderate and modern as it really is. Once that happens, as my integrationist friends are well aware, the game is up.

Daniel Hannan is a Conservative MEP for South East England.