Britain’s relationship with the European Union has always had a contradiction at its heart, writes Bill Jamieson
Destiny we can alter. Fate is inescapable. Tomorrow David Cameron has a rendezvous with fate, on a date not of his choosing and in a speech he must surely regret he ever pledged to make.
“Europe” has never been the destiny of Britain, but it has become our fate. We are set apart by geography and history but bound up in its affairs for those very same reasons.
Tomorrow, yet another UK prime minister wrestles with this paradox. He seeks a “new relationship” with Europe. Good luck to him. He joins a long and rarely orderly queue of leaders of these islands who have sought the same and rarely emerged triumphant. Every prime minister since Ted Heath has had to wrestle with the diplomatic pressures to support the EU “project” in the face of the natural scepticism of an island people.
Expectations of this speech have been allowed to soar. Without a word uttered it has already been hailed as historic, epochal, a defining moment of his premiership. Mr Cameron has been foolhardy in allowing such expectation to run rampant. And it is quite misleading to liken this speech to a “Bruges moment”. One of the reasons why Margaret Thatcher’s groundbreaking Bruges speech was so resonant was its element of surprise. It was not preceded by weeks of speculation or built up in advance as a “defining moment”. It drew power from its freshness, its boldness and the element of surprise. And did it resolve our European dilemma or move us to some more cordial and sustainable relation? Not a jot.
Mr Cameron has now walked into a deadly trap, and of his own making. He has set himself two irreconcilable objectives. The first is to pacify Eurosceptic critics in his own party and to halt the drift of grass-roots Conservative support towards the UK Independence Party (Ukip). He needs to do this if he has any prospect of winning those critical marginal constituencies in the 2015 general election.
Alongside this he wishes to stake out a new position for the UK in the European Union. He wishes to avoid further drift towards EU integration and to reclaim powers that have been transferred to Brussels. But the tougher the rhetoric to win back that drifting electoral support, the more he is likely to stiffen resistance in Brussels to his negotiating position.
It is said that Britain “enjoys influence in Brussels”. The very fact that the UK prime minister is attempting a renegotiation suggests the contrary: what influence we have enjoyed has remained well hidden, while we have lost control in critical areas such as immigration, in addition to receiving a deluge of business regulation.
Where we have fought, we have fought in vain. As for the European Parliament, which sought to confer legitimacy on the work of the European Commission, it is widely regarded as a political graveyard, an assembly to which barely any attention is paid. There was a memorable line in the Danish political drama Borgen when the prime minister and her press secretary were discussing which political opponent they could get rid of and appoint as European Commissioner. “In Brussels,” mutters the press attaché, “no-one can hear you scream.”
If only, say the Tory Eurosceptics, we could revert to the EU being a free trade area, a set of inter-governmental agreements for the easing of commerce and advancement of business investment. But, in truth, the central mission of the EU has never been this. The EU developed as it has as a response to the “German question” and the tying in of continental Europe’s dominant economic and political force to a complex set of legal rules and codes protecting the interests of the less powerful members. This was always its mission. And in this the UK has, whether we wish it or not, a definite historical, economic and strategic interest. It has always been in the UK interest to prevent mainland Europe from being dominated by one country. Equally, it has been the duty of the Westminster parliament to preserve and protect the sovereignty of the UK.
That, however, has fallen by the wayside. The EU was from the start, its apologists concede, about political integration and always about “ever closer union”. But the problem with this, of course, is that it has never been accepted as such by the British people and never been put out for affirmation in a popular vote. Had it been at the outset, many tears would have been spared.
As matters now stand, with Ukip and the SNP showing up strongly in voting intentions for the European Parliament elections next year, it is highly unlikely that Mr Cameron will want withdrawal to be an option in the referendum he has in mind post-2015.
A perverse result of this is that he cannot credibly deploy the one argument in his negotiations that could encourage other EU members to look sympathetically on his proposals: a reminder that the UK is one of the largest annual net contributors to the EU budget (£9.36 billion after the rebate) – an income that would of course disappear on withdrawal. Continental EU leaders may feel they have nothing to lose by making the minimum of concessions to Mr Cameron and exposing him to defeat in a referendum – even assuming the 2015 general election keeps him in situ as prime minister, an unlikely prospect at present.
The blunt truth is that the UK has historically been, and will long continue to be, ill at ease with the grand designs of mainland Europe. But at the same time we have a keen interest in ensuring that Europe does not again fall prey to the ambitions of a dominant single force. This is the paradox, the contradiction at the heart, the circle we will never square.
The best that a UK prime minister can hope for is that this contradiction can be held in check. Unfortunately, the financial crisis in Europe has morphed into a sovereign debt crisis that has worked to intensify the drive towards integration and ever-closer union. The pressure is thus set to intensify, whatever feat of eloquence the Prime Minister is able to pull off tomorrow. Europe is our fate, and if we are not used to it by now, we shall soon learn from another bitter experience.