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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

BRITAIN AND EUROPE Following up from my recent post on the EU here are some interesting pieces today on Britain's place in Europe. Larry Elliott makes the argument that Euroscepticism must not be the sole preserve of the right. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I agree that Euroscepticism is too important to be an entirely partisan issue, but on the other hand there is the problem that in a two-party system, the two main parties should be different at least on one of the big issues.
Talking of the right Robin Harris makes some necessary points about the Tories' conduct of European policy:
People accept that the Tories are hostile to further European integration. But there is also an ingrained awareness of past muddle and duplicity. As Mr Howard takes pleasure in repeating, the Tories took Britain into Europe and have consistently campaigned for the country to stay there.
. . .
So the Tory leadership today is as paralysed as ever on Europe. Mr Howard's pronouncements on the subject might have seemed bold 10 years ago. Today they strike the electorate as merely unrealistic.
There is not the slightest point in calling, as the Tory leader has done, for a "Europe of nation states", a "more flexible and tolerant Europe", an "enterprise Europe" or a "positive Europe" (whatever that may be). These things are not on offer. Europe is driven by an economic and social doctrine of statism that is fundamentally at odds with the liberal capitalism practised in the Anglo-Saxon world. Indeed, it is because Mr Howard implicitly recognises this that he talks about restoring national powers that have already been yielded to the EU.
He knows that, whether or not any new European Constitution is passed, Britain will be dragged further and further into corporatism if present arrangements go unchallenged.
Yet what finally makes the whole Tory position incredible is the refusal to admit that the disengagement required will lead to a crisis. And it will. True, continental Europe has no long-term interest in cutting relations, let alone trade, with Britain. But in the short term, if Mr Howard should become prime minister and try to embark on the programme that he has promised, he would find Britain subject to a ruthless campaign of destabilisation from Brussels, Paris and Berlin, with precious little sympathy from any other European capital.
Mr Howard would eventually get his way, because Britain is strong enough to act defiantly - as long as he had not already tied his own hands.
If I weren't an overly cautious sort of person I'd say I agree with this a hundred percent, however I do have one major quibble with it. Harris' point rest on an assumption of British power that I am sceptical about (George Kerevan made a similarly optimistic point). It is clear that the continuation of current British and Eurozone policies will indeed make Britain's per capita power ever larger as time progresses. I just doubt that this will be enough, and especially that this will be in time. The EU constitution's ratification process will begin soon and any notion of a great transformation of the EU or Britain's membership must take place within that time span, which will amount to no more than about two years from now. Given that the Tories will be in power at the earliest in a year's time that means in fact only one year to get the job done. Perhaps a Prime Minister Gordon Brown would also push in that direction and the way Jonathan Freedland portrays the Chancellor certainly suggests that Brown isn’t tone deaf on the European issue.
However, it is in fact just that Chancellor's policies, particularly his love affair with petty business regulations, that could make a renegotiation coincide with an economic slow-down at the same time the Eurozone perks up a little. Of course in the bigger picture this doesn't change the argument for renegotiation, but will make it just that extra more difficult to sell to the public.
The challenge will be for the Tories to put its EU-policy in a proper framework and be able to present it convincingly to the public. With the whole Iraq issue likely to remain on the burner for quite a while yet, foreign policy will feature in a Commons election for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The Conservatives should not be afraid to be a little bolder on foreign policy issues; their outlook is more in tune with the public’s instincts than Labour's.
Turning to Robin Harris, I've approvingly quoted him before and I'm quite keen to get my hands on a copy of his new pamphlet, which should offer a good elaboration on the themes he's discussed in his previous publications and will undoubtedly offer some good advice on the future direction of British foreign policy.

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