Europe, after the Conservative Party

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, whatever the other distractions of their premierships, were keen followers of the European debate. Only Gordon Brown, in the terminal stages of his decay, can be accused of such a lack of interest in matters European. David Cameron is in a league of his own, writes Tom Spencer.

Tom Spencer is visiting professor of Public Affairs at Brunel and Chester universities. For decades he enjoyed a distinguished career in public office, serving as the leader of the British Conservatives in the European Parliament and President of the European Parliament's Committee on Foreign Affairs, Human Rights and Defence Policy. This op-ed is a shortened version of an commentary published on BlogActiv

A senior European figure, commenting on David Cameron’s demeanour during European Councils, is reported to have said “He is just not interested”.

Unfortunately “not interested” is not an acceptable position for a British prime minister in the 21st century.  It was a dangerous posture for Lord Salisbury in the days of “Splendid Isolation” at the height of British imperial power. Yet it can stand as a symbol of the strange sense of dislocation which has currently seized so much of the Westminster bubble for whom “Fog in channel – Europe cut off” seems to be simply a self-evident truth. 

As we drift, apparently aimlessly, towards such an In/Out referendum in 2016, it seems sensible to rank the uncertainties in some kind of logical order. We can then contemplate the series of Russian dolls that such a ranking implies. It is my belief that the innermost ‘doll’ has now been settled. 

The euro will survive as part of a deal that creates a political and fiscal union for which the Germans are prepared to pay. The second question therefore is what should Britain’s response be? We can leave. Or we can catch up with the rest of the Union. Or we can define a permanent second-class citizenship, hope to negotiate such a position with our partners and then sell it to the British electorate. The risks in such a process are obviously immense. 

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski pointed out in a speech at Blenheim Palace on 21 September that Britain, and in particular the Conservative Party, should not expect sympathy or support from the rest of Europe, both inside and outside the eurozone. Sikorski demolishes eurosceptic myths with commendable vigour. His conclusion is worth quoting at length: 

“Now, Britain’s leaders need to decide once again how best to use their influence in Europe. The EU is an English-speaking power. The Single Market was a British idea. A British commissioner runs our diplomatic service. You could, if only you wished, lead Europe’s defence policy. But if you refuse, please don’t expect us to help you wreck or paralyse the EU. Do not underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20th century. You were not occupied. Most of us on the continent were. We will do almost anything to prevent that from happening again.”

As a service to the Conservative Party, I have posted his speech on my website.

The assumption that Britain can lead a second-tier group of countries is an old British fallacy dating back to our departure from the Messina Conference and the subsequent creation and failure of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Whatever their reservations, there are no other countries seriously contemplating leaving the European Union. They long ago came to terms with the reality of power for all European countries, whether big or small, in a globally dangerous world.

It is a good example of what Sikorski refers to as the “False consciousness” currently infecting British attitudes to Europe.

Europe plays the same role in the mind of the Conservative Party as is played by abortion, creationism and birther conspiracies in the fevered mind of the Republican Party. On what basis one might ask has the Conservative Party fallen out of love with Europe? It can’t surely still be bent cucumbers and long abandoned menus for the British sausage. Are the worthies of the Party really up in arms about the threat to our liberties from the European Court of Human Rights? How many of them know in any case that this Court bears no relationship to the European Union itself.

Do frightened families gather round their kitchen tables at night to discuss the imminent dangers of the European arrest warrant? How many British families would want us to go back to the days of ensuring that junior doctors were regularly deprived of sleep as part of the natural funding of the NHS? How many British stalwarts rise every morning determined to repel Spanish fishermen, French onion pedlars and German car salesmen?

Surely we have grown beyond such tedious and outdated stereotypes?

Opinion pollsters still ask the same questions they have been asking since we joined. They ask about public understanding of institutions; which we do not teach properly in our schools. They ask our electorate to assess whether or not Europe has been good for us; without presenting any statistics. They ask whether we should stay or leave; without presenting any information on the cost of departure.

The public, who rank Europe well down their list of priorities, respond with the pollsters' equivalent of a shrug of the shoulders and the raising of two fingers. Nobody asks them to seriously contemplate the impact of leaving the European Union on their jobs and lifestyles.  Nobody asks them to explain how their country would be better off outside all the great trading blocs or why inward investment should come to a Britain which has deliberately excluded itself from the rest of the Continent.

Subscribe to our newsletters