Commentators are already disputing the Prime Minister’s wisdom in saying what he’s just said about the EU. But at least he has spoken. For too long Conservatives seem to have been in thrall to the idea that the EU is only a problem because they keep talking about it. Peter Oborne says the sensible and wise policy until now has been to ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ There is another refrain much loved by some: ‘Banging on about Europe.’ If the Conservatives could just avoid the issue or kick it into the long grass then the problem would disappear.
This view established itself around the time of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. So harrowing was the experience for John Major that the party leadership took away this one salutary (so they thought) lesson – that the best way to deal with the European issue was to ignore it. A score of ‘rebels’ voted against the government and from then on the party was caught in a fear of being split.
The scars of Maastricht are still evident. It is one of the reasons David Cameron has been so reluctant to talk about it. Focus-group ninjas told us the public was turned off by the issue, mostly because it made politicians look a bit frothy around the mouth. Had it not been for the growing distress of the eurozone, the advent of a new generation of Conservatives unashamed of their scepticism, and worries over UKIP, it’s not clear that the PM would have given his speech at all. Circumstances, perhaps, rather than inclination forced his hand.
But what if the real problem is something else – something opposite to be precise? What if the real source of Conservative stress over Europe is that they spend too much time trying not to talk about it or trying to pretend it isn’t one of the most pressing and significant issues of the age. One can see the attraction – a problem avoided is a problem solved. But this is simply burying one’s head in the sand in the hope that danger can’t see you.
Such thinking is not new. Politicians frequently pretend problems don’t really exist. Take mass immigration. If there is a problem with mass immigration, so the intimation goes, it is in talking about it, because its mere discussion is inflammatory. Nothing to do with numbers or pressure on resources or anything like that. The irony is that because politicians are afraid of the issue, certain elements of the press dominate the discussion with their own distorting views, from all wings of the media. Same with the deficit. Admittedly, the Conservatives spend a lot of time talking about Labour’s economic mess, but on this one it’s Labour who is guilty of pretending an issue is not an issue even though they know full well it is.
Europe is a headache for the Conservatives because too many seem to believe they can ignore the central question, which is whether they are for it or against it. John Major’s Maastricht opt out on the Social Chapter was seen as a victory, but it was nothing of the sort. All it took was an incoming Labour government and a wave of a pen and all that negotiation was made defunct. He ended up displeasing both the europhiles and the sceptics. Lancing a boil is messy whenever you do it, but at least it’s been dealt with.
His mistake was to pretend there was a pain-free solution to the split in opinion. There was none. Issues have to be dealt with, not fudged. That is the point of them. The debate in the Conservative party should have taken place there and then. Either the party was in favour of UK participation in the EU, accepting its desire for monetary and political union, or it was not. If for it, all demands, once we’d had our say, should have been accepted; if against it, we should have blocked the treaty or withdrawn ourselves from the club and negotiated our future relationship in the manner of all other countries of the world.
This, I’m afraid, is a battle still to be played out and David Cameron has set the thing in motion. Either the growing ranks of sceptical Conservatives must mellow and accept the EU, or the PM must change his mind and put the Conservative party at the forefront of rejection of the EU.
The issue must be faced and a decision made, in or out. The chances of the PM negotiating a new relationship for the UK from within the EU are extremely low, and that’s assuming he will win the next election and be in a position to negotiate. Even if he does get something, it will simply have the effect of making the EU even more of an organisational mess than it already is, what with current moves to create some sort of fiscal union to go with the monetary and the foreign and everything else.
There will also remain the little matter of diminishing democracy, which the PM has already identified. Slowly but steadily, despite protestations that the project is enhancing democracy, it is being diminished, and we really don’t know what the fall out will be when the divergent peoples of Europe finally realise that they are not in charge of their countries or their lives as they thought they were after the Second World War and after the fall of the Berlin Wall.