I’ve just finished reading John Le Carre’s entertaining spy thriller, A Small Town in Germany. This story takes place in Bonn in the 1960s and concerns the joyless workings of the British Consulate at a time when Britain was desperately trying to gain entry to the exclusive European Common Market.
Battered by post war austerity and the humiliations of Suez, Le Carre accurately captures the sense of national decline that afflicted Britain at the time and the fear that that Britain risked being left outside a more united and prosperous Europe. With Europe yet again dominating the news, A Small Time in Germany, is a useful reminder that our membership of the EU has always been an accounting exercise rather than an affair of the heart. We’ve always been an awkward partner.
One of the reasons why the European question has become so pointed in recent years is the prevailing feeling that the political costs of membership outweigh the economic benefits. A key argument deployed by Nigel Lawson in his article in The Times last week was that Britain urgently needs new sources of economic growth and that Europe is unlikely to provide them. Europe is seen as over regulated and inwardly focused. The rules of membership of the single market are seen as an unnecessary Gallic break on economic competitiveness.
This is new territory.
The European debate has moved beyond the all too familiar debates about national sovereignty to the question of Britain’s long term economic survival. Political questions about Europe’s democratic deficit still exist but they have been joined by economic concerns about its competiveness and whether current arrangements best serve Britain’s economic national interest.
It is perhaps the combination of these two variables that makes the current European debate so politically toxic and problematic for Cameron. In the past, the hostility of British political classes to foreign encroachments on judicial, parliamentary or governmental sovereignty were always kept in check by the enthusiasm they showed for economic internationalism by championing the single market and EU enlargement.This bargain has always been fragile at the best times, as illustrated by the budget debates of the 1980s, but since the economic slump of 2008 the bargain is fast unravelling.
Eurosceptism is now part of the political mainstream in a way that it never was in the 1980s or 1990s.Back bench rebellions on Europe were rare events 20 years ago. Now they are common place. Slowly but surely the possibility of British withdrawal is being normalised. It is not enough that the EU Act places acts as an emergency brake on future transfers of power and sovereignty to Brussels, Britain wants and demands, or so we are led to believe, a renegotiated settlement.
Paradoxically these rebellions and the emerging political discourse on Europe have been legitimated by Cameron himself. Right from the outset the vision of Cameron and Hague for 21st century foreign policy is one in which Britain sits pragmatically as a hub nation in the centre of a lattice-work of flexible, overlapping networks. With dire public finances and anaemic growth, there is no room for grandiose imperial schemes such as remaking the world in Europe’s image.
It always strikes me when travelling in Europe, not least to Brussels, that people just don’t understand the uniqueness of the British debate here. They assume that British Eurosceptism is at heart a variant of the nasty angry nationalism that stalks minority parties in Europe. There is certainly an English flavour to the debate, that I suspect reflects a deeper disgruntlement with devolution, and yet, I’ve loads of friends who would consider themselves to be liberal metropolitan types but who are deep dyed Eurosceptics.
This isn’t to say that the modern British Eurosceptism isn’t without its contradictions and tensions. As a I keep remideing my Eurosceptic friends and colleagues, you can’t have a single free trade area, open markets and undistorted competition in Europe without supra-national regulators to police competition, state aid payments and non-tariff barriers.
Similarly the populist appeal for some parts of the political Eurosceptic agenda seems a little misplaced when it would result in lower social protection and employment rights. It stills surprises me that deregulation minded Eurosceptics claim that they are representing the honest yeoman of Britain fed up with Brussels meddling when they are essentially advocating supply side measures most favoured by business or employers federations.
The more pressing question here is surely why Germany – bound by the same EU employment, social and environmental rules that supposedly hold Britain back – is a champion at selling to China? If the only way we can compete internationally is by winning the race to the bottom then we really are in a sorry mess.
Im always struck when people say we have culturally more in common with our trans-Atlantic friends than our friends across the channel. But let’s face it, when it comes to attitudes to religion, gun ownership, capital punishment, social welfare, the environment or the desirability of free, universal public healthcare, we are more European than we realise.
The problem at present is that these tensions and contradictions within the Eurosceptic discourse remain hidden due to the on-going political debate about the mechanics of any referendum. We might all agree that we don’t like present arrangements – and lets be honest we aren’t the only Europeans to feel this way – but we have yet to start teasing out what political and economic arrangements would work best, let alone how we might realise them through negotiations.
The optimist in me welcomes the opportunity provided by an in-out referendum to have an honest debate about the costs and benefits of membership that moves away from tabloid populism. The UK’s first referendum on Europe in 1975 belongs to another time and another generation and it is perhaps only right that the democratic consensus underpinning our membership is tested. The pessimist in me worries, however, it is already too late to have a cool, rational debate on EU membership as hostility to Europe is now so well entrenched.