Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Which Europe should we choose?

Sometimes I'm hard on governments. Especially this one. It has little sense of history, little sense of the value of what it has inherited, and little strategic sense beyond hacking away at a deficit they should probably take a knife to rather than an axe.

But it's getting painted into a corner on Europe, and I'm a bit more sympathetic than usual. It's a corner we've been in before - under Harold Macmillan, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Prime Minister David Cameron (above) faces an unenviable balancing act. There'll probably be a new Union Treaty in the new year. But his party don't want much to do with federalist schemes that would basically create a European budget, a European chancellor and a European economic policy. The public aren't that keen on the idea either - to put it mildly. Both party and voters would like him to repatriate at least some powers.

But on the other hand, he faces the most pressing crisis of all: the overriding need to prevent the Euro crashing and dragging the world economy (and, incidentally, his premiership) down with it. So he can't sit there and ask for a long list of concessions. He'd be ignored - or worse, thrown out of the room while the Euro-17 discussed an entirely new structure, with perhaps a new executive council or board. He's going to have to be constructive.

It's exacty the same dilemma that Macmillan and Wilson faced when their entry to the European Economic Community was barred by General de Gaulle. They wanted 'Europe' to become an economic and a military entity that could punch its own weight in the world; they wanted to boost world trade and secure world payments while plugging the UK economy into one of the most productive and efficient economies in the world. But they didn't want to get absorbed into a 'superstate'. They couldn't convince enough Europeans (or de Gaulle) that they were on the side of the European 'project'.

So the Brits went on, through their referendum, through the Thatcher rebate years when she banged the table and demanded her money back, and then onto the disasters of the Major premiership, when the Conservatives tore themselves to shreds over the Maastricht Treaty. All the while they told themselves that they'd solved their dilemma - that 'their voice being heard' in both Brussels and Washington made it all right.

Perhaps they were deluding themselves.

Will they face their dilemma head-on now? I doubt it. The government has painted itself into a corner. It can't leave. It can't even threaten to leave. So it's going to have to let the Eurozone members do what they like, while grabbing some sort of fig leaf about a 'threat to the City of London' that probably never existed.

Then we can all go back to forgetting our real dilemma. Are we fully paid-up Europeans, or aren't we? And if we're not, can we let the others go ahead as fast as they might like, even though that might hurt our interests?

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