What is the UK Conservative Party going to do about Europe, except lobby against Tony Blair? The party conference in Manchester has thus far spread more confusion than light on Britain’s future relationship with or in the European Union, while the democratic approval of the Lisbon Treaty by all 27 EU member states has made the party line of a Lisbon Treaty referendum increasingly unrealistic.
In The Telegraph, Bruno Waterfield pierces the Conservative leadership’s veil of subterfuge on the Lisbon Treaty in ”The Tories must be more open on Europe” (5 October 2009). The time for hiding behind the ratification of the amending treaty is over:
“In reality, the Poles and Czechs have already ratified. The only thing that hasn’t happened is that their presidents have not signed an “instrument of ratification” to be deposited in Rome.
This is a formality. Nobody expects either president to defy both chambers of his country’s parliament by refusing to sign until a British general election. It is fantasy politics at best or dishonesty at worst to declare otherwise.”
On the other hand, Daniel Hannan who is seen as a Conservative hardliner (and withdrawalist?) on Europe, caught his supporters by surprise with his sudden mellifluous expression of trust in David Cameron’s leadership towards a referendum on Europe, in “Euro-row? What Euro-row?” (The Telegraph, 5 October 2009).
Better than a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is:
“… to push for a wider repatriation of powers from Brussels to Westminster – not just the rights surrendered at Lisbon, but those surrendered at Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice.”
According to Hannan, opt-outs concerning only Britain would be easier for other member states to accept, because they would not change the institutional structure for everyone else. Such a deal would be put to the British people in a referendum, and Hannan is hopeful that it will happen under the next Conservative government.
In “British Conservatives: gazing in a rear-view mirror” (Blogactiv, 5 October 2009) Stanley Crossick notes that in an opinion poll only 3 per cent of Conservative Party members said that Britain should play a full part in building an ever closer union. (This happens to be the main purpose of European integration since the 1957 EEC Treaty.)
According to Crossick, securing opt-outs from existing policy areas is out of the question, as David Cameron and William Hague must surely know. This leaves Britain with three options:
“• To hold a referendum on whether the UK should leave the EU.
• To play a blocking role – eg on the budget – and try to force concessions.
• To ‘grin and bear it’.
The first choice is the only rational and honest one. The referendum would have to precede the negotiation of the terms of the withdrawal.
The second choice would destroy the UK’s reputation and would be irresponsible.
The third is the only feasible choice.
The paradox is that none of the major challenges facing the UK can be resolved solely at domestic level – economic recession, climate change, energy security, immigration, terrorism, international crime…
Bruno Waterfield is right about requiring an open, realistic and honest EU policy from the Conservative leadership.
Daniel Hannan’s “conversion” has sown confusion among his hard-line secessionist supporters, but it has probably decapitated a potential rebellion in Manchester.
From a European standpoint, Hannan’s indirect admission of the legitimacy of the aspirations of Britain’s EU partners is a welcome step.
As Crossick states, an In or Out referendum is the only rational and honest choice.
Destroying the UK’s reputation and irresponsibility seem to be minor concerns in the British EU debate. Left on the inside, Britain would continue to play a blocking role, to the detriment of the other member states.
‘To grin and bear it’ hardly depicts a constructive role. It could easily descend into Britain playing its multiple veto cards and resorting to extortion tactics. Would it be a wise choice for the other EU member states to keep an even more obstructionist Britain on board?
The Conservative Party, the British public, the member states of the European Union and EU citizens have a right to expect a clear EU policy from the Manchester conference, but only a constructive UK would be worth having in the European Union.