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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.

Comments

( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
steepholm
Nov. 29th, 2012 11:32 pm (UTC)
As you know, I'm far from being an EU-phile, but I'm quite surprised at your reporting (here and I think elsewhere in your recent posts) that the UK's departure seems to be taken for granted in Brussels. I think it's fairly unlikely in the foreseeable future, and I don't see anyone here calling for it who hasn't been calling for it for years - and they have always done so from the fringes of British politics.

But also, if I were in Brussels I wouldn't be contemplating the departure of the UK from the EU with the resigned equanimity that you seem to be conjuring: I'd be fighting damned hard to prevent it. When you consider how much effort and bending of rules has been expended in keeping Greece in the club, it seems slightly ludicrous that the departure of an economy eight times its size (to say nothing of any other measure of the UK's relative significance) should evoke, by comparison, no more than a wistful sigh.
nwhyte
Nov. 30th, 2012 12:46 am (UTC)
The problem is that most of the EU wants to continue integrating; and the UK does not. Therefore any further integration will leave the UK behind. It's not a question of negotiating with the government; the referendum act mandates that any future treaty change affecting UK sovereignty be put to a popular vote, and nobody believes that any such vote can be won.

The big differences with Greece is that the Greek government actually wanted to stay in, and are also part of the euro, which very much shaped the incentives of the other member states. But who wants to negotiate with British ministers over what should get put into a referendum that they are going to lose anyway?
steepholm
Nov. 30th, 2012 09:39 am (UTC)
I think it's clear from this that the question isn't whether the UK wants to stay in the EU (all three major parties are committed to that - so in that respect there's no difference from Greece), as whether it will be able to stay in should the EU change in the direction of further integration. To you, of course, this may seem like a distinction without a difference, because I suspect you see the goal of ever closer union as part of the EU's DNA, rather than (as I do) as simply the ambition of the dominant political wing within it.

You may well be right that most of the EU (both peoples and governments) want to continue integrating. But it's hard to tell at the moment, because the immediate pressure for integration is coming from economic circumstances, which will probably force it to happen whether people want it or not. (We may as well say that most of the EU "wanted" to bail out the bankers.)

"I wouldn't start from here" ought to be the EU's motto - and perhaps that of most organizations - but I think a good deal of the hostility to the EU in this country actually comes from its lack of integration, in the sense that its governing structures are still those of a multi-lateral trading body, not the proto-government it clearly sees itself as. This has produced a democratic deficit it seems in no hurry to address - and indeed, when economic circumstances dictate, democracy is the first thing to go, as we saw with the installation of the Italian and Greek satrapies.

Much of the EU seems arse about face, in other words, with the democratic dog being well and truly thumped by the financial tail. (I know this can be said of many governments, of course, but in theory at least we can vote those out.) Yet all the pressure for further integration, with the muted exceptions of diplomacy and defence, is still in the economic field. I turn on the radio every day expecting to hear that, in the pursuit of integration, the Commission has proposed its own abolition and replacement with an elected body, but so far I have listened in vain.

Apologies for long comment!
nwhyte
Nov. 30th, 2012 03:23 pm (UTC)
No problem about length!

I'm really stunned that anyone could think that the goal of "ever closer union" is not part of the EU's DNA. It's literally the first sentence of the Treaty of Rome. So indeed, I do see it as a distinction without a difference.

I fear that your perceptions may have been unduly shaped by the inherent distortion of British reporting of what the EU is up to (surmising from your use of "satrapies" to describe two governments constitutionally voted in by their countries' respective parliaments, one of which has since stepped down after fresh elections, rather than parachuted in by the Germans as the British media would have it). Please do read the Rennie paper which I linked to in the original post.

Serious question: Do you really think that Britain would vote to stay in the EU if the European Commission were directly elected?

Edited at 2012-11-30 03:24 pm (UTC)
steepholm
Nov. 30th, 2012 05:47 pm (UTC)
It's precisely because it's at the beginning of a treaty that I think of it as a flourish rather than a legal obligation. If anything, it's surely a pious and laudable hope that "the peoples of Europe" (not, note, just the six initial members on whose behalf the signatories might be thought competent to speak) will become ever more closely tied in bonds of amity, goodwill, understanding, etc. Of course, I agree with that, in the same spirit that I'm in favour of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I don't think of it as referring to currency union, etc., nor do I think many nations would have signed up on the understanding that their ultimate goal was a single state - which must surely be the terminus of "ever closer union", understood as you would wish me to do.

As for your question - I really don't know how the British would feel in those circumstance, because I don't believe that anyone's ever bothered to ask them, but it would certainly make a difference to me.
nwhyte
Nov. 30th, 2012 10:20 pm (UTC)
I don't think either of us said it was a "legal obligation"; that's a straw man, seriously. You said (putting words in my mouth, incidentally) that you did not "see the goal of ever closer union as part of the EU's DNA". I pointed out that it is in the first sentence of the founding treaty. You seem to think that's irrelevant; I beg to differ.

I'm personally sceptical about the value of Europe-wide direct elections to the Commission, either for its president or for the entire slate; multi-member executive bodies are not normally chosen directly by the people anywhere. But the next European elections will bring an interesting step along this path as the EU-wide parties will each be supporting their own candidates for Commission President. I'm open to being convinced. (The UK, of course, will be excluded from voting for the likely winner as no British party is in the EPP.)
steepholm
Nov. 30th, 2012 11:26 pm (UTC)
Well, of course I shall be watching all these events with interest.

To be fair, I don't think I put words into your mouth. I said that I suspected you believed something, not that you did, and I was certainly open to correction. In fact, you replied that you were stunned anyone could believe anything else.
parrot_knight
Dec. 1st, 2012 12:54 am (UTC)
The reporting of the processes of elections and government formation by many UK journalists seems seriously flawed now. The impression was left that the governments of Mario Monti and Lukas Pakademos are or were somehow not responsible to parliamentary scrutiny. I feel, though am not certain why I do, that this attitude is part of the same garment, though not necessarily of the same cloth, as one aspect of the BBC's 2010 UK election coverage narrative-formation. ISTR that it waited days, until David Cameron was on the steps of 10 Downing Street, to run its full closing credit sequence, as if desperate to anoint a 'winner' in the conventional quasi-presidential sense.
nwhyte
Dec. 1st, 2012 10:33 am (UTC)
The reporting of the processes of elections and government formation by many UK journalists seems seriously flawed now.

Did it not seem seriously flawed at the time?

Edited at 2012-12-01 10:34 am (UTC)
parrot_knight
Dec. 1st, 2012 10:52 am (UTC)
My 'now' includes 2010.
nwhyte
Dec. 1st, 2012 10:58 am (UTC)
I know the feeling!
unwholesome_fen
Dec. 3rd, 2012 03:36 am (UTC)
I'd say that the Tories are more divided than ever on the issue of Europe, to the extent that it now seems plausible that the party might split. How far Cameron will go to appease the extremists is the question - and given the impossible position he's been put in over the EU budget, it's hard to see how he could stop short of a referendum if he wants to survive as leader of the party in more or less its current form.

Since many people's views on the EU seem to be irrational and delusional, I have little confidence that a referendum would have a positive result.
steepholm
Dec. 3rd, 2012 09:20 am (UTC)
You may well be right: my futurological powers in matters of party politics have been proved feeble on several occasions. But what I would hope would happen is that in the context of a referendum (were it to happen) the pro-EU faction would get off their bottoms and make a populist case to compete with the rhetoric of their opponents.

The pro-EU cause isn't helped by a largely hostile press, certainly, but its proponents seem very disinclined to make a positive case for staying in, at any rate in a populist forum. Their two tactics seem to be a) to talk vaguely about "the incalculable benefits this country derives from membership of..." but without managing to make these seem real or tangible, and b) to use threatening/insulting language about how Britain on its own would be a pitiful off-shore island harvesting nothing but drizzle - which, if they haven't seen how badly it plays I'm not going to be the one to tell them. A crisis such as a referendum might awake them from their slumbers - or I would hope so, anyway.
unwholesome_fen
Dec. 4th, 2012 12:25 am (UTC)
The problem is that it will be a herculean task - there's 30+ years of disinformation to try to roll back. Politicians here have been quite happy to do one thing and spin another a lot of the time, including blaming things on the EU that were actually their own fault whenever it was convenient. So not only have they often not made the case for the EU, in fact they've often helped to nurture the same myths that they would now have to dispel.
abigailb
Nov. 29th, 2012 11:41 pm (UTC)
I simply don't see any appetite for it in big business. Right now they'd rather spend influence in other ways - if there is a referendum they will have no other choice than to throw their weight behind the "stay" campaign, which will then comfortably win. Anything else would be an economic disaster for them. (Most business support for UKIP seems really to come from what I can only describe as the petit-bourgeoisie, with very limited understanding of how the big picture works)
nwhyte
Nov. 30th, 2012 12:55 am (UTC)
I've seen plenty of referendums fail which were backed by big business! Anyway, what I failed to make clear in my review is that the crunch comes when the rest of the EU wants to integrate further, and the UK does not. The EU will go on, leaving Britain behind.

It is possible that the business community doesn't realise how close to leaving the UK already is, and maybe pieces like Rennie's and the note by Charles Grant I linked to a few days ago will concentrate people's minds. Perhaps UKIP's performance in today's by-elections may have an effect too.
parrot_knight
Nov. 30th, 2012 01:41 am (UTC)
What of the businesspeople complaining of new employment law edicts from Brussels coming down every few weeks, or so they claim? One small business near my parents' claims to be groaning under rules alternately baffling and restrictive. Are they right to think in these terms? Would leaving the EU make things better for them? At the moment, they think so, and no-one is arguing otherwise.

UKIP's strong performance in the by-elections at Rotherham and Middlesbrough (I'm still waiting for Croydon North as I type) suggests their emergence as a respectable protest vote for Conservative supporters for reasons beyond and in addition to the Europe issue to me, though they would take some time and careful research to be usefully unpacked.
nwhyte
Nov. 30th, 2012 02:06 pm (UTC)
Sorry, thought I had replied to this earlier.

I would be frankly surprised if there really are new employment law "edicts" coming as frequently as every few weeks from Brussels. If your contacts are complaining about being compelled to offer equal pay to women, or decent working hours to their employees, my sympathy will be a bit limited. In any case, it's the British government's responsibility to 2) make the regulations less baffling and workable, and 1) to negotiate them in the first place.

And if the UK withdraws from the EU, but still wants to participate in the single market, it will end up like Norway or Switzerland, compelled to implement most of the EU regulations anyway but with no voice at the table where they are decided.

One of UKIP's other appeals is that they are anti-migration, which perhaps has broader appeal than opposition to the EU.
parrot_knight
Nov. 30th, 2012 02:29 pm (UTC)
Anti-migration, anti-wind farms and anti-elitist in a vague sort of way (given that financially they depend on the donations of a wealthy few whose concerns are largely not those of their target voter).

All you have said is good to know... but no-one is making the case here, and misrepresentation of the EU serves the short-tern interests of many politicians.
inulro
Nov. 30th, 2012 03:58 pm (UTC)
If anyone was making the case here (and they should be, most definitely) it would be an uphill battle to get media coverage.
parrot_knight
Dec. 1st, 2012 01:04 am (UTC)
Sadly, that's been true for some time. I remember a scholar of the European Union appearing on the BBC's European election programme in 1999, but her explanations of what was going on and how the European parliament worked were at such variance with the subjects those appearing in their party political capacities wished to talk about that she had less screen time than she deserved.
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