Bill Jamieson: Is Europe the creme in the coffee?

HUNGARIANS remind us that freedom to choose is something worth struggling for, writes Bill Jamieson

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban (left) and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last month. Picture: AFP/Getty

Sipping a delicious coffee with whipped cream in a street café in one of the greatest cities of Europe is surely enough to soften the heart of the most veteran Euro-sceptic. Who could not envy this easy sociability and not wish to embrace the very idea of Europe at its most pleasing and seductive?

But then this is Budapest, second only to Vienna in its adoration of café crème. Its relationship with the EU, however, is currently not so creamy.

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It is as complex and ambiguous as our own.

Over the past week the Budapest newspapers have been full of “The Slap”. At a recent EU summit, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker greeted Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, with an audible aside – “the dictator is coming” – and playfully slapped him in the face.

It was meant as a joke but has backfired spectacularly. Hungary has recently pursued changes to its constitution that Brussels finds disagreeable. It has sought to lecture the country on human rights. If a visit to the October 1956 Uprising memorial in Budapest’s Kossuth Square is not sufficient demonstration of how this country suffered for the right to self-determination, you can drive out to the museum of gigantic Soviet monuments on the outskirts of Budapest, there to ponder what the uprising did to the vast statue of Joseph Stalin. All that remains is a giant pair of boots. You can see immediately why Hungarians do not take well to finger-wagging by outsiders on how to defend liberty.

Against this, our own referendum on EU membership seems small-minded and arcane. But after decades of niggling, disputation and argument, the political case for a referendum on our EU membership appears unanswerable.

Do we not need it as a purgative, to settle this issue beyond doubt? Whether you are for or against, is it not time we resolved the issue of “Europe” once and for all? This desire for resolution and settlement is the principal argument in favour of the referendum. Until recently it was an argument I accepted intuitively, with barely a shadow of doubt or hesitation. Today, I am not so sure it would settle very much – and indeed, may prove more divisive than unifying.

In Scotland, we pride ourselves in a more positive view of “Europe”. This is evidence, surely, of our more progressive and internationalist mindset. The SNP sees Scotland taking its place in the councils of Europe, free of the parochialism and negativity of English discontent. Indeed, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has made clear her view that she would not only question the legitimacy of a UK No vote were a majority of Scots to vote in favour of membership, but also argue that the political definition of the UK would be so changed as to justify a second referendum on Scottish independence.

On this perspective, the EU referendum would not represent closure or resolution but would 
re-open a constitutional argument we thought settled in the referendum last September.

However, the more likely outcome – of a Yes vote to remain inside the EU – by no means resolves matters either. Indeed, argument would break out as to how “decisive” the result had proved to be. We might consider a 55 per cent Yes vote and 45 per cent No to be sufficiently decisive. But, as we learnt from last September’s referendum such a vote has not settled the matter at all.

There is no certainty that a No vote would be readily accepted across the political and business communities, any more than a Yes vote would silence the Euro-sceptics. Argument on the terms and conditions of membership – and on the acceptability of further EU integration – would continue to rage. Indeed, some Euro-sceptics are already talking of a second referendum in 2020. But a trap will then have been sprung by which a Yes vote is widely viewed across the EU as an overt commitment of UK support for future development of the EU whatever the rhetoric surrounding Prime Minister David Cameron’s negotiations on reform.

Viewed thus, Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent remarks that he is confident that Britain will not leave the EU and that David Cameron “wants to dock his country permanently to Europe” may be seen as a rhetorical slap in the face – only this time not meant as a joke.

The broader problem of referendums is that we have become seduced by the argument that they are an infallible device for the settlement of political questions, blinding us to questions on how inviolate the results really are, how long their writ should last and how open our constitution would be to a voter change of mind in future years. The attraction of leaving such decisions to a democratically elected government is that we can vote out the government and replace it with another one.

And all this is to miss a profound truth about “Europe”. It is not a monolithic entity of 28 members all in perfect harmony with Brussels – bar Britain. In fact, the closer you look, the more evident serious differences in outlook and policy become.

Hungary is one example of a country that has shed blood for the right to determine its constitution and guard its self-determination, however distasteful some of its features may be to outsiders. The threat by Brussels to invoke legal action against Hungary only worked to inflame matters.

Nor is disaffection with Brussels the preserve of right wing parties and movements. Opposition to Brussels-backed austerity policies has been commonplace across much of the eurozone, most notably in Spain and Portugal. And across the EU there is an evident and vigorous strain of distrust of Brussels.

Back in 2012 a survey conducted by TNS Opinion on behalf of the European Commission showed that, across the EU, those who think that their country’s interests are looked after well in the EU were in a minority (42 per cent). About 31 per cent of EU citizens tend to trust the European Union as an institution, and about 60 per cent do not tend to trust it.

No referendum can expunge Euro-scepticism or settle “once and for all” the politics that surround our EU membership. Argument and division are part and parcel of membership, as many EU countries will testify.

In the Café Gerbeaud in Budapest the menu displays ten different types of coffee on offer. Supporters of our EU membership might usefully reflect that such differences and choice are part and parcel of that Europe we admire.