Europe: Phobic, Sceptic, Schizo, Phile?

by Ray_North on November 1, 2012

I was brought up in a deeply pro-European house. My father, born just before the war, had been profoundly affected by what he saw being unearthed at Belsen and Treblinka, Auschwitz etc and was rightly persuaded by the pro-European politicians of the 1950′s and 1960′s who made the very persuasive argument that in order to ensure that European never again fell into bloody conflagration there was a need for close political and economic union.

It is an argument that has been proved to be right – the idea now that Germany and France would go to war is absurd (Germany, some might say, have found a different way to exert influence over the nations of Europe). But, the issue of Europe continues to wreak havoc within the main political parties, whilst, amongst the populas at large remains a source of confusion. And, for me, I have to say, it is no longer a matter upon I which I am comfortable pinning my colours to either pro or anti mast.

Last night in a vote on the EU budget, the government were defeated and an amendment calling for a cut in real terms to the EU budget was passed.

So what does that mean?

Well, on a practical level it means almost nothing – the vote wasn’t binding, the rest of the EU will ignore it, and Cameron will continue to be, as he would have been anyway, a fairly marginal voice within Europe.

But, on a political level it is more significant.

For the Tories, Europe is and will continue to be a headache. I don’t buy into the notion that the Eurosceptics within the Conservative Party are a bunch of wide eyed loonies (well not on this issue) – it makes sense if you are a ‘conservative’ and a ‘unionist’ to take the view that we should be ruled from Westminster not Brussels – to my mind, Euroscepticism within the Tory party is one of their more coherent beliefs. It may not be progressive, and it may be based upon a bigoted suspicion of those who do not speak the ‘Queen’s English’. But, it does make sense. The problem for the Tories though, is that there is also the Heathite strand of thought within the Tories that acknowledge that actually it makes better economic and political sense to be in Europe, indeed at the heart of Europe, than outside and that makes sense as well, and so the Tory party continues to limp along in a state of perpetual schizophrenia on the issue of Europe.

For Labour, the issue is also a tricky one – in 1983, famously, we were coming out under Michael Foot, but then, under Tony Blair a decade later, we were most definitely in – thankfully, Gordon Brown was ‘less in’ than Tony and put together a series of tests that were designed to keep us out of the Euro – phew.

Last night Labour voted with the Tory Sceptics to defeat the government – ‘opportunists’ cry the Tory-Not-So-Sceptics, and they have a point. Alright, when Labour says that their decision to vote against the government was based upon their belief that in a time of austerity everyone, including the EU, should have their budgets reduced, they have a justifiable position – but don’t tell me, that Labour’s first thought when setting a three line whip into the rebel lobby, was anything other than a gleeful – ‘this will embarrass Cameron.’ And, being an opposition party, there is something in that as well – but, the reality is that Labour is only marginally less confused about Europe thn the Conservatives.

So what about the Lib-Dems? Traditionally a party that is pro-European, but also, as I once pointed out during my time as a Lib-Dem scribe, a party of local government – ceding power to a government that few people have any love for or understanding of, I proffered timidly in an internal policy document that got leaked to the Daily Telegraph, and giving power back to the people in their town halls and municipalities, was not er, exactly, compatible or logical – and I was roundly beaten up and declared mad (perhaps rightly!).

The reality is that the European Union has not carved an important place for itself within the psyche of most ordinary voters – it seems far removed from us, which it is, and has been over the years an easy target because of its elitist overly bureaucratic culture. Whilst in the last year, it has shown itself to be a bully in the way in which it has treated the Greeks, and far too weighted in favour of the strongest nations – Germany and France. In short the EU has failed to become ‘of the people, for the people.’ And that is important. But does that mean that the EU cannot, in time, acquire such a position? I used to think yes, but now after the debacle over the Euro, I’m not so sure.

So, if there was a referendum tomorrow on whether we should stay in or leave, I have to say that I would genuinely not know how to vote – sixty years of peace is a strong argument in favour, but the increasing disenfranchisement of the people is a testament to its failure.

So, am I a phobic, sceptic, shizo or phile? Answer: a shrug of my shoulders – I haven’t a clue, probably all four.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

George_East November 1, 2012 at 10:34 am

Opportunist? Yes, but I don’t know why that is wrong. Labour was very successful in the early 1990s at exploiting the Major government’s troubles over Europe. It was opportunistic but helped frame a narrative of a Prime Minister unable to control his own party, a factor which led to Blair’s 1997 landslide..
Given the shambolic nature of this government this vote will add to a growing similar impression of Cameron. That seems to me to be a legitimate political strategy for Labour to follow. They can’t actually affect anything until 2015 and, as you say, it’s a non-binding motion. I think Miliband was right on this, as you can tell by the result: two Tory MPs arguing with each other on the radio this morning and Nick Robinson asking ‘is this John Major all over again?’. Job done.

When the government puts up Nick Clegg of all people to accuse Labour of ‘dishonesty and opportunism’ you must be doing something right.
Oh and it was the great Neil Kinnock who persuaded Labour to embrace Europe. Smith and then Blair followed in his wake.

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Hugo November 1, 2012 at 11:48 am

On the matter of Europe I have to agree with the German comic and all round good egg Henning Wehn when he said that if the UK wants to know if it’s in Europe then all it has to do is look at a ‘Bloody Map!’.

Last nights vote was nothing more than cynical politics. And whereas the media are trying to suggest that it was a humiliating defeat for the PM the sad truth is that if Cameron were still a backbencher the he would have been leading the rebellion. He is and always was and will remain a eurosceptic. The Labour Party far from humiliating the government have handed Cameron and his xenophobic following an overwhelming mandate to go to Brussels and push for rebates and reforms that will only serve to marginalise the UK.

If I may digress for a moment, The suggestion that Labours strategy of exploiting te divisions in the Conservative party over Europe was successful in the 90′s is possibly overstating the case. By the time of the election in 1997 everyone was sick to the back teeth of the Tory’s and it didn’t really matter what The Labour Party stood for, they were going to win simply because thy weren’t the Tory’s. a decade later and the public mood had shifted towards a distrust of Labour and for those old enough to remember the 80′s, no trust in the Tory’s at all. A dacade later The Clegg effect was simply the realisation that there was the faintest of possibilities that there could be a third choice. I need not go into detail how that third choice finally put to rest the very concept of a multiparty political system. Thanks Nick!!

The defeat of the government last night was a defeat for the UK generally. The political game play of labour to defeat Cameron on any issue has only served to reopen a debate on membership of the EU and after forty years of membership this debate should be dead and buried. The reason it isn’t dead and the reason we have schizophrenic political parties either fanatically for or against Europe depending on which side of the House they are sitting at the time is because we continue to have an adversarial polital system. A system so antiquated and outdated that it is even proud of the fact that the PM faces the opposition leader at question time at a distance in length of exactly two swords. Whilst this system remains there is no hope for proper debate. Sadly our politicians now believe that trading insults and adopting the opposite view is level of political debate. But perhaps my nostalgia for a time when politicians were great oritors with opinions based on belief and passion is being viewed through rose tinted specticals and there never was a time that the issues were truly debated and policies formulated on the lines of public good and long term interests. Somehow I don’t think politics was as cynical as it is today and the Labour Party handing Cameron a mandate to go to Brussels and make demands that will only lead to the UK being further marginalised will do nothing to improve our ability to trade with 300 million EU citizens.

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Mark Thompson November 1, 2012 at 8:01 pm

Dont forget the world has 7 BILLION citizens…..

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George_East November 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm

Not sure I wholly agree with that Hugo, though I certainly agree that Labour would have won in 1997 in any event and your points are interesting.

The main point I was making was that the general impression of the John Major government was one of utter incomptence (even though by the time the election had come round we were well into economic recovery). This was, I think, made up of 3 main things: (i) being kicked out of EMU on Black Wednesday, (ii) the fiasco of Back to Basics and (iii) the Tories tearing themselves apart over Europe – remember this got so bad that John Major put himself up for re-election as Tory leader in 1995! The size of the victory in 1997 was a testament to just how much they were loathed, partly because they had become such a farce – though with Major, it was more contempt than the hatred that Thatcher engendered I feel.

I always think that to criticise politicians for playing politics is akin to Captain Renault being ‘shocked’ that gambling was going on in Rick’s Cafe in Casabalana. It is how the game works – the opposition can do little else, in a majoritarian system.

Let’s not pretend that Cameron is strengthened by this. He is not. He looks like man who cannot control his Party, and being forced to ‘follow’ rather than ‘lead’ as Tony Blair once said to John Major. He may well go to the Euro-Summit and posture and huff and puff. He may even veto the budget, but as we saw with the non-veto veto last December, the effect will simply be the rest of the EU will go ahead and do what they want to do anyway. Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are not going to let the usual British sulkiness get in the way of what they want to do.

The truth of the Euro question though is that we are heading for an In/Out referendum at some point down the line. It is all but inevitable. I would not be surprised if such a proposal is contained in the next Tory manifesto. The Tory Party is radically more Euro-sceptic than it was in the days of the 1990s ‘bastards’ and the point needs to be settled, My view, is that there is a strong case for it to be held sooner rather than later. Bizarrely despite all of the bile in the press, I suspect when push comes to shove, we will vote to stay in.

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Hugo November 1, 2012 at 12:19 pm

P.S. it has been said that it is wrong to agree to an effective increase of £300 million in payments to Europe. May I remind those of this view that our dear Chancellor of the Exchequer suggested during he last budget that the higher rate of income tax of 50% had only raised £100 million by implication cutting the tax would only result in loosing a £100 milliong which in the Chancellor’s own words was ‘virtually nothing’. It must follow that the effective increase of £300 million is therefore a multiple of three times nothing

The bigger picture is that it is wrong to cut public expenditure. The very idea that because there is a stupid and shortsighted policy of cutting expenditure then we also have to further damage our status in the European forum is ludicrous. It must be ludicrous because I heard Geroge Osbourne use the same argument on the Radio this morning.

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George_East November 1, 2012 at 12:22 pm

Thanks for providing the figures. I agree that £300m is nothing at all in the scheme of overall spending, which is why, I, unlike Jackie, do believe that Labour’s stance yesterday was essentially opportunistic, rather than about principle. Where we disagree, I think, is whether policial opportunism is a valid strategy on this issue.
The 50% tax rate, of course, raised far more than £100M (something like £1.5Bn) and would have raised even more had it been in place for more tha one year (and therefore the opportunity of phasing income into particular tax years had been prevented).
I certainly agree with you that as with the Daily Mail you can be pretty certain that whatever George Osborne, says the opposite is true.

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Ray_North November 1, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Scene: Labour Whip’s Office Late at Night
Present: Ed M, Ed B, DA and Rosie Winterton (Chief Whip)

Ed M: So, right, I see we’ve got the vote on the EU Budget next week.
DA: Yes, I see it as an ideal opportunity to take a principled stand on the need to cut the EU budget.
Ed B: Yes, absolutely, if we’re really all in this together, then the EU should have it’s budget clipped just the same as everyone else.
Ed M: Yes. Quite right.
Ed B: Yes, it’s just the morally correct stand that we in the Labour Party should be taking.
Ed M: Yes, ‘one nation labourism’ in action eh?
DA: Oh yes Ed, nice one!
Ed M: Now anybody have any idea how this will play with the Tories and Cameron?
Ed B (shrugs shoulders): fucked if I know.
DA: No idea.
Rosie Winterton: I’m not sure.

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Ray_North November 1, 2012 at 9:48 pm

At the risk of sounding like a Lib-Dem Conference – I agree with Mark, yes, there are 7 billion citizens in the world; and yes, I agree with Jackie, there is some justification in the Labour Party’s stance on the EU Budget; and yes I agree with George this was essentially an opportunistic act by Labour, but that is not necessarily a bad thing (which wasn’t what I was suggesting in my piece); and yes, I agree with Hugo (in fact I think I agree with Hugo most), in that on an issue as important as Europe, which has remained unresolved for over thirty years and it is underwhelming when the standard of debate is so very low and the level of political chicanery so obvious (Labour gets no gold stars for ingenuity for managing to assist the Tory sceptics in rebelling against the government).
The point of my piece was actually, that on such an important issue, the arguments are so difficult to resolve that it is easier for the parties to posture and use it against eachother than try to properly solve the EU conundrum – and actually, I don’t blame them for that.

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George_East November 1, 2012 at 11:03 pm

Labour should commit to an In/Out referendum. It needs to happen to resolve the issue and will cause meltdown amongst the Tories.

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George_East November 1, 2012 at 11:44 am

Do you know the numbers? What does an inflationary increase translate to? I can probably look it up, but intrigued as to its net fiscal effect.

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George_East November 1, 2012 at 5:13 pm

Except, of course, it wouldn’t. There is no possibilty of this government (or indeed any government) saying ok we’ve saved £300M from the budget by not increasing the EU budget, therefore we won’t close fire stations in London. Its loose change in the scale of things that would be lost down the back of the foreign office’s sofa. It wouldn’t go back into some general pot for distribution elsewhere.

I don’t disagree with your general point though or that the EU budget should be reduced (provided it doesn’t harm further southern Europe) – but dressing this up as a principled stance strikes me as a backwards reasoning excuse for something which was politically the right thing to do. Opposing trident renewal might have rather more resonance if Labour wanted to make a principled stand on spending (£15-20Bn conservatively, perhaps as much as £100Bn). Coincidentally a further £350M was committed this week to upgrading our nuclear deterent.

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