Wednesday, May 19, 2004

What's the Next Step for the Eurosceptic cause?

The recent silence has not been for the usual reason, pure laziness, but an additional and unaccustomed condition - indecision.

The not so recent concession of a vote on the constitution has created a strange quandry. At the very worst its a giant hurdle to increased European integration as it affects Britain, at its best it stops European integration dead. I am not the type of person who takes an optimistic intepretation whenever there is a half empty glass lying around, so I will stay with the idea that it's a giant hurdle.

Of course there could be a referendum on either the Euro or the constitution, and the British public at some future date may be more favourably disposed towards the idea. Even without the British public becoming more favourable, the Conservative Party may find itself outmaneuvered into not opposing the referendum or the press may fall under the hands of profit averse Europhiles who are prepared to see their circulation fall as they beat the pro-Euro drum. The government may even decide to renege on the very idea of a referendum and assume the very real risk that their party, their support and the country will essentially fall apart. Of course we need to retain and build the overlapping voluntary organisations that can bypass Conservative Party if necesary and form the nucleus for any grassroots No campaign. However any large frontal assault on British sovereignty is unlikely.

Of course an answer of sorts comes screaming out - those crafty Belgian imperialists will simply go the back way. Without us knowing they'll regulate away our rights and freedoms. And that is a fair point. They do. It is hard for a non-lawyer, or even most lawyers, to comprehend the sheer amount of unchecked legislation that is arriving at us from across the channel. Any one who follows the excellent work of Christopher Booker will be aware of the unremmitting flood of new law that is unscrutinised and so largely unknown.

This is a very real problem detrimental to both our independence and our national interest, but how should we deal with it? Some of us are experts in a fairly narrow field and could profitably spend time studying and sumarising for laymen the effect of existing and forthcoming regulations on their area. In some areas, food safety and fishing policy are examples, there are already Eurosceptic technicians beavering away and the results are finding their way into trade bodies, the Eurosceptic groups and sometimes even the media. For those people the return on their time will be far greater than leafletting or attending meetings above pubs.

Not all of us are experts in those fairly narrow fields. Leafletting and meetings may be what we are best at. So what should we do? Simply opposing certain aspects of Europe as they appear may not be a way forward. Of course if something becomes big enough we could stir up a fuss in the public, and may even demand a referendum, but opposing Europe on a piecemeal basis will be a dispiriting treadmill. The problem is not that there is no threat that we're countering but that we need a more fundamental approach if we do not become bogged down in the minutae.

Withdrawal is probably still a step too far. Of course it must be put forward in that it is desireable in and of itself and it is gravely damaging to any British negotiation if it is unthinkable. However for as long as it puts off more voters (and funders) than it attracts we cannot expect the Conservatives to espouse it.

Withdrawal also raises an uncomfortable question for the Eurosceptics, what about America? Our relationship with America is a crucial question. If we were to leave Europe then it is fairly likely that America will ask us to surrender much of our hard won sovereignty to her. That is the brutal way of presenting British ascession to NAFTA, "enhanced" security arrangements and the whole panopoly of "pooled sovereignty" that the idea of the Anglosphere entails for Britain. So how do the Eurosceptics deal with this?

Of course we can ignore it, but Europhiles are already raising the posibility (after unwisely trying to ridicule it for years) and we can expect them to keep raising it when they realise its divisive power amongst Eurosceptics. And let us be honest there are a tiny minority of Eurosceptics (I'll call them hard Atlanticists and not fifty-first staters as that would be nasty) who do not object to supranational Federalism as such, just to who the master is. The problem with European Union is that it stops us being a part of the American project. Conrad Black was probably the most prominent proponent of that approach and there are a clutch of Tory MPs who take this anti-nationalist line, Julian Lewis being the most obvious example but it being an unspoken assumption amongst many even on the front bench. (The objection being that there is no competing nation, but that is still the case with Europe today).

There is another school of thought, one to which I will often subscribe, that although Atlantic Union is not particularly superior to European Union at least it is less well developed and so less of an imminent threat (soft Atlanticists). Besides it is useful in that the British public are not willing to go cold turkey on national dependence and so should opt for the methadone of Washington to wean them off the heroin of Brussels. Then there are those (soft Americosceptics), like me in my less desperate moments, who see the logic in that argument but ask what the point of recovering sovereignty is if you are giving it away again and can't see how this will sell to the British public. The argument between these two schools (who between them make up the majority of Eurosceptics) is one of tactics rather than one of principle, but it could nevertheless create divisive arguments.

Finally you have those who will support European federalism despite their innate scepticism because if given a choice between European and American domination they will choose Europe (hard Americosceptics). There are already people both on the left (Robin Cook - a particularly sore loss) and the right (Stuart Reid of the Spectator) who have deserted the Eurosceptic cause on precisely these grounds. There will be more.

Of course delay may sort out this conundrum. It often does. Even if it doesn't the Eurosceptic movement won't actually lose anything by putting it off. Pushing for independence now will ensure that the debate comes to the fore.

So how do we get on the front foot without having to deal with the American Question? It's repatriation of powers. There is not much qualitive difference between opposition to further federalism and a gentle roll back and so there will not be the immediate defection of activists. It also means that the agenda is with the Eurosceptics, and that ad hoc coalitions can be built around.

To a large extent the strategy has already worked, sowing confusion within the SNP over the fishing policy and also giving Gordon Brown ammunition to persue his vendata against Blair. Look how old the second story is.


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