Brian Wilson: establishing the value of democracy

Less than 40 years ago, tanks were on the streets of Lisbon with a military coup in progress Picture: Keystone/Getty
Less than 40 years ago, tanks were on the streets of Lisbon with a military coup in progress Picture: Keystone/Getty
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I am accustomed to viewing the world from the periphery of Europe. This time, however, my vantage point is further south than normal, looking out on the Atlantic from a rather pleasant spot south of Lisbon.

It is not a bad view and neither is it the worst place from which to observe the latest round in the eternal battle over British membership of the European Union. What is always required in that debate is a sense of perspective – historical as well as economic.

A mere generation ago, Portugal was ruled by a dictatorship which was ousted by military coup. The country then joined the EU in 1986 and has since been one of its most conspicuous beneficiaries. That explains the magnificent infrastructure and the appearances of a sophisticated, prosperous society.

It has been much the same story in Greece and Spain, which made the transition to democracy in 1974 and 1978 respectively. How astonishing to think that within easy memory, these fortresses of European civilisation and culture were run by brutal, fascistic regimes whose democratic opponents lived in fear and exile.

There is no way of knowing whether, in the absence of the EU, the fragile democracies which emerged would have regressed to their old ways. What we do know is that integration into the EU made it well-nigh impossible and the wealth which was redistributed around Europe underpinned not only economic transformation but also secure democracy.

The question at the heart of the European debate, however it is dressed up, is whether – as individuals and as a country – we regard all of that as any of our business? Do we acclaim the European Union for having facilitated this extraordinary transition? Or do we take the view that it has all been a hopelessly over-elaborate waste of money? At a time of economic peril, should we abandon the façade of European unity and concentrate on our own backyard?

According to the most recent opinion poll, that is indeed the view held by more than half of the British population. That is a startling response, but while it may be an accurate statistical snap-shot, I am pretty sure it would quickly be replaced by a more realistic one if the matter ever looked like being put to the test.

That is what happened in the 1970s when the only previous referendum on EU membership or anything to do with the EU was held. At that time, there was a much more legitimate case against membership than there is now – it really was a Common Market and nothing more. All the good bits, such as social and regional policies, came later. But even then, under scrutiny, the arguments for leaving were overwhelmed in the course of the campaign by those in favour of being inside.

If the current clamour for a referendum is acceded to, the nuts and bolts arguments will suddenly become much more prominent than they are today. Every business in the country which depends on access to the EU market would find a voice. Every foreign investor who is here because we are part of the EU would make a statement of the obvious. Disgruntlement would soon succumb to realism.

And that is what makes the referendum call so much of a diversion from the genuine case for reform. It suits the hard-core anti-Europeans to confuse the two because doing so has the potential to convert themselves from fringe obsessives into visionaries at the head of a great movement. At this point, the electorate is not required to draw a distinction between withdrawal and reform.

Economic crisis has precipitated this latest outbreak of Euroscepticism. It seems like straightforward common sense that, at a time when every other budget is being cut, the EU should not be planning for a budget increase. Any prime minister of any party could not fail to subscribe to that basic premise and then do his or her best to deliver.

It is David Cameron’s misfortune, just as it was for his Conservative predecessors, that a substantial segment of his party is utterly uninterested in creating a consensus around any such proposition and then wishing their man well in the negotiations. On the contrary, they see only an opportunity to revive strident anti-Europeanism and demand a referendum.

I watched these people at close quarters during the 1990s when they played a large part in destroying their own government. The behaviour of the Tory MPs, acutely described by John Major as “bastards” , was beyond belief. Night after night they would force their exhausted colleagues to hang about the Commons for fear of them calling a vote. They operated to all intents and purposes like a separate, hostile political force.

Some of the same individuals are still around and have been joined by new recruits. It is worth remembering that Iain Duncan Smith was one of them – a fact which made his later leadership of the Tory Party such an inevitable car-crash. How could a man who had practised such arch-disloyalty ever command loyalty from the party he had helped to lose power?

Labour should not be drawn into the referendum trap. Ed Miliband’s speech on Monday to the CBI was well-judged by concentrating on the case for reform rather than playing to a gallery which, according to that opinion poll, contains 56 per cent of voters. It might be tempting to pander to them but in the longer term it would create nothing but difficulty and disillusionment. Leave the Tories to their own problems.

The most striking point made by Miliband was that while over 40 per cent of the EU budget goes on the Common Agricultural Policy, industry only accounts for 1.5 per cent of GDP throughout the EU. At the same time, youth unemployment is running at frighteningly high levels in many EU countries. That is, indeed, a priority which reflects history much more than current reality.

If CAP reform was easy, it would have been done long ago – heaven knows, it has been talked about for long enough. Even now, France is girding its loins to resist any cut to the CAP budget in the current negotiations. If Britain is to influence the outcome it will do so by building its own coalition around its own priorities – not by threatening to walk away.

But ultimately, it is the big picture – the one that requires a perspective that goes far beyond current transient events – which determines our attitude individually and collectively to Europe. Are we better together or better apart? Sounds familiar and the answer is the same.