In Brussels, no one can hear you scream
The prospect of an EU referendum should make enough noise to wake up even its most somnolent technocrat and focus the minds of the British electorate
The dream of a generation was realised 40 years ago this month: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island, by Act of Parliament, became the eighth member of the European Economic Community.
The Act was not without controversy. Though many agreed it was the right move to make, senior members of both major political parties opposed it. Millions of Britons did likewise when they were given the chance to vote on marginally different terms of membership two years later.
Yet that was a different age. Europe was led by men who had fought through the furnace of war and then worked tirelessly to rebuild its ruins. At home the towering heights of the economy, and countless workers, were commanded by ministers and their officials from Whitehall. There was a waiting list to be connected to a telephone and a shortlist of about four colours – one more colour than there were TV channels. Newspapers were in black and white. The House of Commons was nothing but white.
Fast forward four decades and our modern world has changed beyond recognition. Europe is almost unrecognisable too. The EEC is a distant memory replaced by a distinctly political construction ruled by technocrats unreservedly committed to the doctrine of ever closer union yet isolated from the concerns of the people they are supposed to serve. For at a time when Irish public spending is 33 percent below its peak and even the Greeks have slashed 20 percent from their bills it is astounding that the European Council President Herman Van Rompuy can demand a 6.8 percent increase in the EU budget in 2013 alone. Many people, not only Britons, find this hard to fathom.
Britain’s relationship with Europe has changed also. Despite the best efforts of Tony Blair (and the not so secret ambitions of Ed Miliband) Britain stood aside from its single greatest integrationist step so far, the creation of the Euro. We have kept greater control over our borders and over our social policy and we continue to demand that those whom de Gaulle dubbed the “stateless ones” surrender power to individual states rather than hoovering it up in Brussels.
The change in the gravity of our relationship has been rapid. Five years ago, the chances of a referendum on a meaningful question on our role with the EU seemed slim. But the plates have shifted.
No longer does the issue marginalise political parties or repel most voters. It is the perception of the European Union as an unrelenting, unreforming machine of the elites, divorced from the realities of the people over whom it rules that is fast becoming fixed in the minds of many.
In Britain, we are near the tipping point where the fears, the frustrations, and the faith of our own people consolidate into a conviction that a new relationship with the EU must be found.
For if we believe that the direction of the EU towards further integration is one we cannot accept, and if we believe that we have no reasonable prospect of altering that trajectory, then the ineluctable, logical consequence must be that we propose a radically different contract with it. And if we are unable to persuade our partners to accede to our wishes, then we must put it to our own people whether they wish to remain a part of the project.
Yet in calling for a vote we must take care. The history of referenda is not promising for those that dream of a new relationship with the EU. Two in every three plebiscites held around the world are lost. The ever succinct Australians have a saying for it: if you don’t know, you vote No. And that is the risk we run if we hold a rushed referendum without a careful debate that sets out clearly how well we will fair in a new arrangement.
The silent minority who in poll after poll say they just do not know whether we should be “in” or “out” may well be chivvied by the BBC, the CBI, the Trades Unions, and all the other great juggernauts of the modern Establishment into thinking “better the devil you know, so let’s stick with the status quo.”
And therein lies the greatest danger. For once there is a referendum, whatever its outcome, there can be no status quo. A “no” vote is not a vote for keeping things as they are; it is effectively an acceptance that we will move faster and deeper into the EU project.
The forces of integration both at home and across Europe will be able to demand, quite properly, that since Britain has chosen to stay, without any change, we must accept all EU rules and regulations now and in the future.
So the scale of the challenge should not be under-estimated and the Prime Minister is right to tread carefully. We need a full and frank debate painting a clear picture of the choices available to us and the kind of country we will be should we choose a new path for Britain. The risk of a no vote – which will open the floodgates of federalism – must be exposed. This false choice must be defeated.
The Prime Minister’s policy speech this month is an unrivalled opportunity to shape this debate, expose Ed Miliband for the opportunist federalist that we all know he really is, and galvanise the electorate. Such an approach, whilst in coalition with proudly pro-integrationist Lib Dems, may not be easy. But it should not be impossible.
Our co-habiting colleagues, after all, went into the last General Election calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. And given, as Nick Clegg rightly says, a government can do more than one thing at a time, we should be able to prepare the British people for a national discussion on our role in Europe and force the Labour leadership to come clean about its federalist ambitions.
The Danish political drama Borgen has gripped the Westminster village. Its latest season has just begun amid much twittering. This line from episode one is worth remembering: “In Brussels, no one can hear you scream”. The prospect of a referendum on our relationship with the EU should make enough noise to wake up even its most somnolent technocrat and focus the minds of the British electorate.
Christopher Pincher is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Tamworth. Follow him on Twitter @ChrisPincher
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