If there’s one thing on which all 28 European Union governments might be able to agree, as they meet in Brussels this week, it’s that the EU currently faces what are probably the gravest challenges in its 60-year history. In Syria, just a few hundred miles from its borders, a war is raging which has seen no fewer than 13 million people displaced from their homes, and is creating unprecedented migration pressures, particularly on the union’s southern shores.
Beyond that, issues ranging from the rapid slowdown in the Chinese economy to climate change itself provide the world’s wealthiest trading bloc with a heavy agenda of intractable problems. And that’s to say nothing of the unresolved structural problems in the management of Europe’s economy and single currency, which led, so recently, to the unedifying sight of Brussels bullying the elected government of Greece into applying cruel and morally indefensible austerity measures which even the IMF agreed could only damage the Greek economy.
And it’s against this backdrop, of course, that the British people should be viewing the question of Britain’s “new deal” with the EU, which the Prime Minister – jacket off, and sleeves rolled up – is said to be negotiating even as I write. It’s not that the possibility of the UK’s departure from the Union is unimportant, in the EU scheme of things; at a moment of such crisis, the departure of the UK, following a negative referendum verdict, could be profoundly destabilising.
Yet measured against the scale of the challenges facing the people of Europe now, it’s hard not to feel that the list of demands being put forward by David Cameron is notable not only for its smallness of spirit, but also for its near-total irrelevance to the major issues facing Europe’s citizens now. Given the poor quality of the coverage of these negotiations in most UK media, most voters could be forgiven for assuming that the only subject under debate is whether Britain can stop EU migrants working in this country from claiming in-work benefits.
There are, though, three other major areas under discussion. There’s the question of whether Britain can be exempted from the treaty provision that the peoples of Europe seek “an ever closer union”. There’s the question of a veto for the non-Eurozone countries on EU economic and financial policy, which George Osborne believes is essential to protect the City of London from hostile regulation. And there’s the question of further “reform” of European regulation and red tape, always at the top of any Tory agenda in Brussels.
What is strikingly absent from the debate, though, is any shred of evidence that success for the Prime Minister, in any of these areas, would confer any actual benefit on ordinary British citizens. As we should know from bitter experience, the Conservative idea of regulatory “reform” usually means nothing but a deterioration in working conditions, job security, and consumer protection. The idea that a defence of the current working practices of the City of London benefits ordinary UK citizens is simply laughable, given the recent track-record of our financial institutions in inflating property prices, creating the conditions for the catastrophic financial crash of 2008, and failing to deal with criminal and fraudulent behaviour in their own industry.
The EU treaties already contain a rider, added in 2014, that countries that do not wish an “ever closer union” need not pursue one; although it would be interesting to hear Mr Cameron explain, in the light of our continent’s war-torn history, exactly what is wrong with the idea of an “ever-closer union” of European peoples, and why it is not a fine ideal for which to strive. And on the headline matter of in-work benefits for EU citizens - well, it’s not only that these cost barely 1.6 per cent of our total in-work benefits bill. It’s that by removing these benefits, we risk triggering a cycle of similar petty-mindedness across Europe, which could impact severely on the often rather more generous rights of the 2.2 million British citizens who live and work elsewhere in the EU.
On every major point, in other words, Mr Cameron’s list of demands is nonsense on stilts; at best merely symbolic, at worst a shameful capitulation to vested interests, or to the routine anti-foreigner hate-mongering of some elements in the media. As he arrived in Brussels yesterday, Mr Cameron said that he was going in to “battle for Britain”; and the only question most of the British media will ask is whether he “battled” hard enough to satisfy the Euro-contemptuous right of his own party.
In truth, though, the debate we should be having is about the fact that David Cameron - elected by just 27 per cent of possible UK voters last year - is not “battling for Britain” at all. He is battling, as ever, for the bankers, and for their right to continue operating almost exactly as they did before the 2008 crash. He is battling for the bosses, and for their right to make profits without too many tiresome regulations on the health, safety and proper reward of their workforce. He is battling for the bigots whose lies about the impact of EU migration he lacks the guts to confront and contradict.
And he is absolutely not battling for the things the ordinary people of Britain desperately need; for an open, progressive Europe that prioritises the welfare of its people above the tired economic dogma of the 1980s, that takes pride in and defends the “European social model” practised by its most successful members, and - above all - that knows how to value the peace we have known across most of our continent for the past two generations. For peace does not build itself. It requires politicians of vision, stature, and generosity, who are prepared to set national divisions aside, and to work night and day to create societies prosperous and equitable enough to keep their people from anger, alienation and despair; and from the rage of the dispossessed that now stalks our headlines every day, directed - of course - not against those truly responsible for that sense of dispossession, but against the very people with whom we should now be making common cause, to fight for a shared European future worth having.