On one level, the televised standoff between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage in the lead-up to the 2014 European election was excellent – it provided a rare space for the reasoned exchange of arguments about Britain’s EU membership. On another level, however, it was largely unhelpful. Any viewer with the slightest grasp of the issues could have predicted each point as it was stated and countered: in a clash between the country’s most cosmopolitan liberal and the incarnation of Little England, there were never going to be very many surprises.
What both this debate and UKIP’s subsequent resounding electoral victory belie was this: that the really important lines of contention on the question of Europe are not been Clegg’s Europhilia and Farage’s Euroscepticism. They are, rather, within the Europhile camp itself, and unless this fact is realised soon then Britain could be heading for a very sticky few years of international relations.
It might be something of a stretch to describe the present Tory leadership as Europhiles, but the political landscape post-election demands that we extend the term to mean “anyone who wants Britain to stay in the EU”. Having cynically played on Eurosceptic sentiments over immigration and legislative interference in the last parliament, it is now essential to Cameron’s pitch on Europe that he is regarded as a moderate pro-European. Whatever concessions he manages to extract from Brussels (which could well be none at all) he will be obliged to make the case for continuing Britain’s EU membership in the upcoming referendum. It will be the natural (and justified) tendency of the Yes campaign to assemble as broad a coalition of support as possible, including, unusually, both the CBI and the TUC. The irony is that the very breadth of this coalition will expose the gaping divisions not just between the Europhiles and Eurosceptics, but between the different shades of Europhiles themselves.
We can expect to see three factions in the game. First are the reformists, those who support the prime minister’s project of loosening Brussels’ grip over national politics, and who will campaign for a Yes on the basis of whatever he manages to achieve in the negotiation process. It with some sleight of hand that Cameron has managed to equate a Yes to Europe vote with his own plans for reform, plans which in many ways run entirely counter to the spirit of the European Union. The ability for national executives to cherry-pick the most amenable EU legislation and leave the rest is a clear threat to the Union’s principle of solidarity – especially if that cherry-picking threatens the prudential stability of the entire bloc by removing the City of London from much-needed oversight. A Yes vote on reformist terms might succeed in keeping Britain in the EU, but the EU that emerges from that wrangling could well just be rump of compromises and opt-outs.
The second faction are the confederalists (though few of them would accept this label) who support Britain’s relationship with the EU more or less as it currently stands. This grouping is made up of the majority of Labour and Lib Dem figures, a quiet minority of Tories (generally those of an older generation, who perhaps identify more with continental Christian democrats than Thatcherites in their own party) and many of the pro-European civil society organisations. These confederalists are right in their recognition that the UK cannot just pick and choose its EU commitments; that, for example, Cameron cannot take the free-market benefits of full membership whilst opting out of legislation which also protects employees.
Yet there are two remarkable and disturbing things about the confederalist position. One is the fact that they have largely capitulated to the government over what would constitute a Yes vote; there has in practice been only very muted opposition to the idea that whatever reforms Cameron succeeds in making will naturally be best for Britain and the EU. The other is that confederalists judge the present state of the EU – and Britain’s place within it – as a largely static fact, something that will either be jeopardised by a No vote or continue as normal after a Yes one. With Brits having unambiguously voted Yes to Europe (the outcome which, despite everything, still seems most likely) then we need not worry much more about the EU for the time being. We will be able to turn to other matters and let the process of European government organically continue.
This is a happy fantasy, but a fantasy nonetheless. The harsh truth is that the EU is at a point of unprecedented existential crisis, from which there are only two ultimate outcomes: it either dissolves into irrelevance, a flimsy intergovernmental gesture along the lines of the Council of Europe, or it battles through the pain and into a fully-fledged federal state, the United Republic of Europe. The first outcome is the dream of Eurosceptics everywhere; the second is the project of a small but growing third faction of Europhiles, the federalists.
No serious federalist believes that the UK would become part of a European federation, at least in the first instance. Yet it is rather disingenuous – both on the part of the reformists, who believe that Britain can adjust its own position without negatively impacting the wider EU, and the confederalists, who believe in business as usual – to say to the British people that a Yes vote will settle the matter of Europe for the foreseeable future. Britain has chosen a particularly awkward time to navel-gaze about its future on the continent. There are forces at work now that will, very soon, decide the fate of the European Union one way or another. A Yes vote in a British referendum will no more solve the problems of the EU than a No vote in the recent Greek one solved that country’s debt crisis.
If and when the question of European federation is raised, Britain will rightly have its say, and most probably opt for a confederal affiliation with the new state encompassing certain areas of economic, environmental and security policy. Then, if not already now, it will no longer do to be just ‘pro-European’, leaving the details as someone else’s business to define. Europe is moving on far too quickly for that.Author : Thought Fox on Europe