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Europe: The Dog That Isn’t Barking

Submitted by on 23 Nov 2010 – 16:45

Rt Hon Denis MacShane MP

By the Rt Hon Denis MacShane, Labour MP for Rotherham and a former Minister for Europe

What has happened to Euroscepticism? For five years in opposition the Conservative Party was all fire and brimstone on Europe. David Cameron, William Hague and Liam Fox were three musketeers accusing first Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown of selling out to Europe. Referendums were promised, powers would be repatriated, no treaty changes would be permitted, and a new Sovereignty Act would be enacted. On the face of it, the Conservatives would form the most hostile government to Europe the country or the continent would have ever seen.

Wise heads at the Foreign Office pooh-poohed all this excitement and said, in effect, Don’t worry as soon as it’s Prime Minister Cameron in Downing Street he will be like all the other prime ministers and will have to rub along with the EU just as everyone else does.

And, thus, so far, it has come to pass. George Osborne has accepted the European Commission’s new regulation of hedge funds which will do serious damage to the City’s wealth. Labour MEPs are crowing that tough new rules on bankers’ bonuses have been accepted by a government which has more ministers with backgrounds in the City than ever before. Home Secretary, Teresa May, has slapped down Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers who wanted her to take a hard line on European arrest warrants and the EU’s power to carry out policing work in Britain.

The new ministers at the FCO include the Europhile Tory Alistair Burt and the LibDem Jeremy Brown whose father was a distinguished ambassador in Europe. Brown speaks, sounds and look like a diplomat.

Labour MPs specialising in EU affairs have been scratching our heads trying to work out where the difference is between what the new coalition line and language on Europe is and what the previous administration’s position was. In truth, there is hardly any.

One must not go too far. In response to a question I put to him, Mr Cameron confirmed that he would keep sitting in the European Parliament with fringe right-wing radical nationalist and populist parties from East and Central Europe. His deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has described these people as “nutters, anti-semites and homophobes” – NASH for short. But it is clear that Mr Cameron like most previous Prime Ministers attaches little importance to his MEPs.

An interesting appointment is that of Eurosceptic-in-Chief, Bill Cash, as chair of the European Scrutiny Committee. This little-known Commons institution has to sieve, vet and approve all EU legislation. But it cannot amend it and has only the unlikely option of trying to delay implementation or persuade Commons business managers to allow a full vote to reject an agreed directive.

But since the British government has already agreed to accept the directive and democratically-elected ministers will have voted for it after getting the best deal or amendments they can then it is hard to see how the Bill Cash EU Scrutiny Committee can have any real impact on Britain’s EU policy save that as Chairman, Mr Cash may get more chance to have his say in the media.

Undoubtedly, the arrival of the pro-European LibDems as coalition partners helped provide cover for Mr Cameron to ditch all his Eurosceptic promises and pledges. Voters themselves do not rate EU policy and politics highly even if they are always happy to tell opinion pollsters they don’t like Europe.

Actually, other than the true EU believer, Edward Heath, most prime ministers have been pragmatic rather than devout Europeans. Tony Blair used his pro-Europeanism to beat up on the Tory government and its absurd opt-outs and beef wars before 1997. In office, he did little to forge an effective European politics.

Europe of course remains in strisis – a mixture of stasis and crisis – without effective leadership, vision and a way forward. That may suit the UK ConDem coalition. But in the past when European integration has been put on hold and no-one seems to know the way forward there have been proposals – usually with France and Germany at their centre – which have been surged EU construction forward. If this again happens how will the new government react? Mr Cameron has undoubtedly bought time as he uses the Lib-Dems as cover to tell his still largely Eurosceptic MPs that they had better just learn to live and let live with the EU.

But if a major new Treaty comes along all this can change. Britain is still the half-in, half-out major EU member-state. The new government has started well as far as Europe is concerned. But the real tests are yet to come.