It is astonishing how much of a brouhaha Europe causes in British politics. I suppose, as the Prime Minister says, it’s because we are an island nation – or more correctly, a union of island nations. But really, there is no need to panic. When you think about it for more than five minutes, the European Union is just an arrangement for dealing with the modern, globalised, world.
It seems, though, that the right wing of the Conservative Party just does not “get” this modern world. They want to return to a time when governments were small and countries undercut each other in trade and tax, allowed their doctors and lorry drivers to work crazy 80 hour weeks, let the banks do what they like, gave tax-avoiders and international criminals an open-season, let our Victorian sewers rot beneath the ground and cheered on the fishermen as they hoovered up all the fish in the sea.
In their old-world wisdom, they have forced David Cameron into promising a referendum which no one can win. And forced him into a re-negotiation which can change very little. Given all the nice things he said about Europe, and Britain’s place in it, I suppose his tactic is to hold the right wing dogs at bay until after the next election. Then, if he wins, he can stage some sort of minor re-negotiation – something which is always going on anyway – and dare the county to vote us out of Europe, knowing full well that we are not a nation of suicidal fools.
It was interesting to note how little detail he gave on what powers he wants returned to the nation states. He mentioned doctors hours but is he really suggesting that patients should be treated by junior doctors who are doing 12 hour shifts six days a week?
He talked of repatriating the so-called “social charter” which regulates employment conditions, sets up works councils and encourages training. These are things which we would be doing anyway and by having a common European charter, we prevent any one country stealing a march on the others by forcing down the conditions of their workers.
The same could be said of European environmental legislation. I would have hoped that Scotland would have cleaned up its water supply and stopped polluting the sea anyway, but the European directives have been a spur to action.
The Home Secretary Teresa May wants to see the whole “criminal charter” repatriated – so doing away with the European arrest warrant, the co-operation agreement between court systems, the common fight against drug trafficking and organised crime. But then Mrs May wants to re-negotiate her way back into some of these useful arrangements. You have to wonder about the need for the whole exercise when you realise that most of the other 130 “ powers” she wants brought back from Brussels are simply enabling measures to allow the main arrangements to happen.
Financial controls is another area where Mr Cameron says we need an exemption. The fear here is that Europe will bring in a tax on financial transactions, or, heaven forbid, proper controls on the operation of investment banks. Here, he reveals that the Conservatives have not really learnt very much from the Great Recession. The same applies to the Conservatives’ objection to a spending and growth policy for Europe.
Instead, they want Europe to be as austere as Britain. Behind this is the idea that the boundaries of the state should be rolled back. Ultra-conservatives believe this as an article of ideology. Mr Cameron and the Chancellor believe it as an article of faith… faith in the private sector producing growth and jobs. So far, unfortunately, it has not worked.
Then there is the fear of the Euro. Yes, it is still in crisis because of the misbehaviour of the banks and the Greek, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish governments. But, gradually, it is beginning to dawn on the EU as a whole that closer financial co-ordination and discipline is needed to ensure that the whole of Europe gets back into growth and stability. And that, after all, is the goal that everyone wants, wherever they live on this continent.
In a way, as the Prime Minster says, Britain should be leading this process since we are the oldest and most stable democracy in Europe and have a fairly good record of empire building. We are also, at the moment, ahead of the game, in that we have an economy that is doing less badly than the rest of Europe and a currency that is stable. But I am old enough to remember the Sterling crises of 1967, 1976 and 1988 when we were forced into huge devaluations. The day may come when we are targeted by the international money markets and we shall be glad to join the Euro.
There is too in the anti-European camp an islander’s distrust of foreigners. The European Union is seen as an inefficient bureaucracy, overpaid and over there, shuttling expensively between two parliament buildings, allowing loose-living Latin nations to disregard the rules. These are undoubtedly faults and it may be that in Britain’s “renegotiation” we shall find allies who also want to clamp down on these inefficiencies. Ordinary citizens everywhere would welcome that.
In the coming days, as we debate the Prime Minister’s referendum, I would like to see the Euro-sceptics answer the following questions.
Without the EU, how else are we to carry out half our trade? Where else will we find a market of 500m people? How else are we to avoid a rush to the bottom over corporation tax, or VAT, or working conditions, or safe and ethical products and production methods? How else are we to tax financial transactions or airline fuel? How else are we to protect our farmers from cheap imports? How else are we to gain access to big and difficult markets like China, India, the USA, Brazil? How else are we to tackle over-fishing, or international crime or tax avoidance, or environmental pollution or climate change?
Re-negotiations and referendums will not alter answer any of these questions, or provide the answers.