It’s Europe, Dave, but not as we know it
Europe might be back to haunt Cameron’s Tories – but this time things look very different for the EU, Britain, the Tory Party and the rest of us.
News that the Tory debate over Europe is back on the UK political agenda will have had some of a certain age groaning with pre-emptive boredom. Their endless factional infighting about the EU was for many the dullest issue of the dull years of John Major’s Conservative government (1990-1997).
Yet the latest row is different, and reveals how much things have changed over the past decade – for Europe, Britain, the Conservatives, and the political map.
Conservative leader David Cameron’s difficulties over the Lisbon Treaty certainly demonstrate that Europe remains a tricky issue. His admission that there was no point holding a referendum on Lisbon once it had passed into law, coupled with a non-specific commitment to resist any further euro-encroachments on UK sovereignty and ‘take back’ powers that have been granted to Brussels, managed to satisfy almost nobody. He was simultaneously attacked by Eurosceptics in Britain for selling out to the EU, and by European government ministers for being an anti-EU extremist.
Yet anti-Tory commentators were surely wrong to make the predictable claim that this showed that the European kraken was awaking within the party and that we are in for a re-run of the Euro-rows of yesteryear. Such claims reveal more about the historical and political ignorance of those fighting a fantasy war against the ghosts of Toryism past than they do about the changed situation today.
Europe certainly divided the Tories in the Eighties and Nineties and helped bring down first Margaret Thatcher and then Major, who railed against the Eurosceptic ‘bastards’ in his own ranks. But even then the debate was only partly about the EU, and the divide over the pace of European integration (which has also long existed in the Labour Party) was not as wide as many made out. Unlike during the referendum on Britain’s membership in the 1970s, there was no major movement for a British withdrawal from the EU, and even Thatcher, the allegedly arch Eurosceptic, signed the Maastricht Treaty that committed the UK to a more integrated Europe – without holding any referendum.
The European debate was really more about Britain – its post-Empire place in the world, and how to manage the UK’s declining international power in relation to the supposed ‘special relationship’ with the US and its growing economic dependence on Europe. It was also about British politics, and what the Tory Party should stand for in an age when the old-fashioned nationalism of Rule Britannia seemed increasingly anachronistic.
The debate about the Tories and Europe may have re-emerged, but in a context where everything has changed. For a start the EU is a different institution, now even less democratic and accountable than it was in the past. Fearful of being sidelined internationally by the rise of the new economies in the East, and even more fearful of their own increasingly mistrustful and alienated peoples, the rulers of the EU now huddle together behind the walls of their top security summits. The EU has become the power bastion of an isolated political elite, well symbolised by the Lisbon Treaty that creates a Euro-president ‘elected’ by the leaders of the member states.
Within this insecure empire, Euro-conformism is now the order of the day, and any hint of Euroscepticism is shrilly shouted down. The EU elite were outraged by the Irish people daring to vote against Lisbon last year, and made them do it again and get it ‘right’ this year (see A defeat for the democratic instinct, by Brendan O’Neill). And they cannot allow any serious European politician to depart from the one-party line on EU hegemony. Hence Cameron’s mild suggestion that he might oppose further integration led to him being screamed at as ‘autistic’ by one French cabinet minister, and as ‘pathologically Europhobic’ by the leading French newspaper. When the minister later issued an apology of sorts, it was for any offence he might have caused to the autism community, not for equating Euroscepticism with a behavioural disorder.
With the EU exposed as more elitist, conformist and contemptuous of its peoples than ever, it might be imagined that there would be greater scope for a Eurosceptic Tory Party to make an impact. Yet under Cameron the Conservatives seem even less inclined to rebel and rock the Euro-boat than they did in the past. This reflects the extent to which things have changed for Britain and the Conservative Party, too.
Britain’s position in the world is now more parlous than at any time in the modern age. Far from choosing between the ‘special relationship’ with the US and a place at the centre of Europe, the UK authorities face being left with neither. The recession that has left Britain trailing behind the other major economies has only confirmed its declining international status. US president Barack Obama clearly does not see Britain as ‘special’, and the difficulties Tony Blair has had getting the job as president of paper clips at the new Council of Europe shows how little the German and French authorities think of their British ‘friend’ these days. Britain is at risk of being marginalised in world affairs, which leaves Gordon Brown or a wannabe statesman such as Cameron with little room to manoeuvre and little appetite for upsetting ‘our allies’ as they seek to hold on to the remaining symbols of British power such as the permanent seat at the UN Security Council.
The Conservatives have also changed, perhaps more than anything else. As we have argued before on spiked, the old no-surrender Tory Party of the Union Flag and Winston Churchill no longer exists (see David Cameron and the demise of Conservatism, by Mick Hume). The Cameron leadership is just another part of the mainstream Euro-elite, without any outstanding ideology or creed to fight for. Opponents have claimed that the Conservatives’ decision to quit the major centre-right grouping in the European Parliament is proof that they are in bed with East European ‘homophobes and fascists’. In fact this clumsy move simply confirmed that the British Conservatives remain rather less federalist-minded than their major European counterparts – a pragmatic recognition that ‘federalism’ means further Franco-German domination. The heated reactions to it say more about the Euro elite’s contempt for their new members from ‘uncivilised’ Eastern Europe than about any substantial political split with the Conservatives.
Euroscepticism remains popular among the rump of the Conservative rank-and-file, of course, for whom Europe has become a symbol of rumbling discontent with the way their old party has been transformed. Yet these people no longer have any real say or influence in British politics. The much-threatened rebellion against Cameron’s abandonment of a referendum on Lisbon last week fizzled out like a damp firework. New Labour’s remaining media supporters now warn hopefully that Cameron is only storing up trouble for the future, and a rebellion will follow the election. No doubt the Conservatives’ veneer of unity would crack quite quickly under the pressures of government, given the absence of any coherent political worldview to hold them together. Yet an Old Tory backlash is just as unlikely as the Old Labour revolt against Blair that we were told would inevitably follow New Labour’s victory in the 1997 General Election.
These changes in the political climate have also altered the British public’s attitude to European matters. Once there were passionate camps on both sides of the debate between Europhiles and Eurosceptics. Now, although the UK is socially and culturally more European than ever before, you never hear of Europhiles in politics. Instead public opinion appears to reflect both a bitterness about the EU as a symbol of anti-democratic trends, alongside a shrug of inevitability about our powerlessness to do anything about it. Despite the rhetorical outbursts about the ‘Brussels empire’, there is a mood of passive fatalism about the whole thing. Hence while Eurosceptics invested their hopes in the Irish rejecting Lisbon on our behalf, the pro-EU lobby looked to the Czech courts to win their case for them and ratify the treaty.
The ripples that Cameron’s speech made in Europe last week show how widespread is the expectation that the Conservatives will win the next UK election. There was certainly no mileage for New Labour in exploiting his discomfort, not least because we all know that the government reneged on its commitment to hold a referendum when it could have stopped the Lisbon process. Yet at the same time, Cameron’s unwillingness and inability to take a firm stand on an issue such as Europe shows the problems he has in getting any real momentum behind his non-political party.
Whatever the precise result in next year’s General Election, it seems clear that there will be no return to Thatcher-style setpiece confrontations with Europe. Instead European politics are likely to continue to drift, with the EU elite – whatever their minor differences – clinging together to deny their peoples any real say in the future.
Things have changed – but not for the better. The one change we really need, a new Europe-wide debate about democracy and political power in the twenty-first century, seems further away than ever.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.