November 29th, 2012


November Books 15) The Continent or the Open Sea, by David Rennie

A few months ago the Economist's David Rennie wrote a pamphlet for the Centre for European Reform, a London-based pro-EU think tank. The paper, like Rennie himself, is only barely pro-EU, and the best bits are not in the conclusions, which he published here, but in the analysis of how successive British governments, especially the present one, got into the mess we are currently in, where a future British departure is increasingly taken for granted in Brussels to the extent that Britain's negotiating strength on almost any issue has been drastically weakened (my analysis, not Rennie's).

Rennie's historical summary starts with Thatcher and ends with Major in 1992, before skipping to the present day, but in terms of understanding how British views on Europe shifted that is fairly reasonable. He then tackles the Conservatives' irrational Euroscepticism with restraint, hits at Labour's pandering on migration, and points out the limits to the Lib Dems' Europhilia and to UKIP's effectiveness. He looks rather too briefly at the role of the media, and in much more detail at think tanks and public opinion, especially in England (the piece as a whole is very Anglocentric). He surveys what the Eurosceptic agenda actually is, and how achievable it may be. And he analyses Cameron's infamous "veto" at last December's summit rather more kindly than he did at the time, though this is not saying much. After thus rather gloomy survey of where we are, he has a few rather modest practical suggestions for the government (which has shown no sign of adopting any of them in the six months since this was published).

While I probably agree with about 70% of the overall analysis, I am in almost complete agreement with the conclusion. (However, I take issue with the statement that "No political party that supports withdrawal has won even a single seat in the House of Commons" - quite apart from early 80s Labour, does he not know of the DUP?) The assumption that the UK will part company with the EU, possibly quite soon, is becoming normalised; and this is one bit of popular wisdom which becomes more rather than less substantial when one digs a big deeper. British policy circles do not realise how far they gave already moved from the core of European debate. The Eurosceptics have not yet won, but they are winning.

Tonight sees a by-election caused by the resignation in disgrace of Labour's most pro-Europe MP; early predictions on Twitter are that Labour will hold on for now despite considerable slippage of support, with UKIP a strong runner-up - another straw in the wind.