The Politics of Incoherence
Saturday, September 27, 2003

The Politics of Incoherence

On the 23rd September, Denis MacShane, Minister for Europe, made a speech in the "Brave New World: Europe in Transition" conference that ranged widely over the current issues shaping Britain's relationship with Europe and the United States. Whilst he discussed the war in Iraq, anti-Americanism, the European Constitution and enlargement, the overall tone of the piece spelled out, yet again, the incoherence of the government's position on Europe.

In supporting the European Union, the government extolls the virtues of enlargement, praises the positive votes that referenda in Central Europe have produced and cite this as evidence of popular support for the EU's institutions, without explaining that the desire of these nations for security motivated many voters.

There are clear moments of light, which illuminate. These include the massive vote in Latvia on Sunday to say Yes to Europe. While politicians of the anti-European right in our country are saying No to Europe, the voters of Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic States are saying Yes, Yes, Yes.

MacShane prefers a "Yes" vote to what he calls the 'politics of negativity', that is, people who criticise Europe. After all, politicians find their trade far easier if people agree with them though MacShane forgets that he is not willing to give his own voters the chance to have a direct say on the proposed Constitution.

A document that he praises highly and one imbued with British common sense:

Jack Straw outlined the case for a constitution for Europe in the Economist last year. The French constitutional expert, Robert Badinter, writing in the Nouvel Observateur, said the Convention draft text should be called 'La Britannique' so thoroughly was it imbued with British down to earth empiricism. It anchors the authority of the European Union in the nation states of Europe.

The Economist thought it was trash but that undermines his argument. Indeed, the ministers don't wish to argue about Europe and all of its gains. Their vision of a United Kingdom, leading the European Union towards a prosperous future and economic reform spells out an agenda of Blairite modernisation that we are so familiar with. MacShane talks about leadership as if it were a rightful inheritance for this country:

The Europe of 25 – and shortly to be 27 - will be based on networks. It will divide into two biggish groups. Not old and new but rather EU member states that embrace reform, create the new economy, are open to the world in contrast to those who think Europe should be based on the acquis of the status quo and protect out-of-date arrangements such as the Common Agricultural Policy.

Britain must be at the head of the Europe of change and reform and modernisation.

The biggest flaw in their argument is that they have already lost the debate. They are no longer able to persuade the electorate of the benefits of Euro membership and greater integration. So MacShane's thoughts here are very important. He despises the debate within Britain, whether it is carried on through the media or in Parliament.

What that really means is that ministers do not make speeches that command the front pages of the tabloids. It was an editor of the Economist who once wrote that the task of journalism is 'first simplify, then exaggerate.' But that golden rule cannot apply to Europe. Britain’s relationship with the European Union is complex, nuanced, changing and has to be painted in different shades.....

This is exceptionally difficult in Britain where we are trained only in the adversarial tradition of debate. If a minister says Europe is not black and white but endless shades of grey, every phrase, tone, or nuance of what he says can be splashed into a headline or hurled about in insults across the despatch boxes of the Commons.

Britain deserves better. One striking aspect of the north London by-election last week was the very low turn-out. I do not think Europe featured much in the campaign. But when nearly seven out of ten voters stay at home, it may be time to ask if the British political tradition of rant and insult, hyperbole and know-all assertion is what people want. I would like as Europe Minister to see if it is possible to hold an adult conversation in our country and I would like to start today by asking my own questions about Europe.

MacShane's answer is to wait out his opponents. New Labour wants the issue of 'Europe' buried, since they are unable to muster valid reasons for their policy. What if the reform movement that the United Kingdom will lead fails? What if the European Union decides to adopt an anti-American foreign policy although the United Kingdom's role is to provide an Atlanticist voice? What if the United Kingdom is overruled? These are questions that Labour does not raise since, to do so, would undermine their implied beliefs that Britain in Europe will prevent these developments.

At some stage, British politics will stop tearing itself apart over Europe.

Britain's politicians are not tearing itself apart over Europe. There was an unspoken pact on this issue once the referendum on the Euro had been agreed. Now, The New Labour government finds that its stance on the European Constitution is unpopular and perceived as arrogant.

Lamenting the rules of the playground in which they fight is a poor argument since thay have already decided that they will act as they see fit.


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