BRUSSELS — All the focus groups in Britain demonstrate that people do not care about Europe. Or at least they certainly don’t treat it as a priority. The economy, health and education, as well as quality of life and security issues, con- sistently rate higher. Yet David Cameron’s Tories are still falling into the trap of talking about Europe long before expanding on their other policies.
During the leadership election, Cameron barely mentioned policy except to reassure rightwing Euroskeptics that under his leadership the Conservative Party would finally withdraw from the largest political group in the European Parliament, the center-right pro-European Christian Democrats, and become central to the formation of a new rightwing Euroskeptic grouping.
Since his election, he has not only renewed this ridiculous withdrawal pledge but sent a downbeat of Euro-phobic messages to the ears of the party’s rightwing, the media and those activists whose extreme views stem too often from lightly hidden racism and xenophobia.
Recently he announced that he will delay the new grouping until 2009. Clearly, he is financially tied to the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) until then. A delay staves off embarrassment for Tory members of the European Parliament who are not standing again and thus have nothing to lose by refusing to leave the EPP. Equally, it means that Tory MEPs can keep their posts as chairs of committees, delegations and the rest.
But Cameron has signed a joint declaration with Mirek Topolanek, the leader of the Czech Civic Democratic Party and the prime minister-designate of the Czech Republic, to create a new grouping in the European Parliament in 2009.
This will apparently be a new Movement for European Reform that will be open to all like-minded parties across Europe. One presumes “like-minded” would include the Italian “postfascist” Alleanza Nazionale, which the Tories work with in the Council of Europe, the viciously homophobic Polish League of Families, or the Dutch Calvinists, who are against television and women’s right to vote.
The result is that the Tories are in the worst of all worlds, completely marginalized, uncertain of their future and without influence within the EPP. And whether the Christian Democrats are willing to be treated in such a cynical manner has yet to be seen.
In a recent speech, former Conservative Party leader William Hague declared: “Europe is at a crisis point. The assumptions of the last 50 years no longer hold true.”
A crisis point? I don’t know which European Union that Hague was referring to, because the one I work in is currently one of the most popular clubs in town. Only two years ago, 10 new countries joined the EU, another two will join in the next couple of years, negotiations have been opened with Turkey and Croatia, and many more are filling in membership application forms.
The euro currency has been a phenomenal success with 12 countries using it, 10 countries desperately wanting it and a rising 27 percent of world trade conducted in it. The draft European constitution has been rejected by France and Holland, but arguably in France this was more a referendum on domestic policies. Rarely discussed are the countries that have ratified the constitution, with the 16th “yes” due in Finland. The EU has not collapsed without the constitution; rather, it has moved forward incrementally, implementing piece by piece key parts of the constitution necessary to the effective running of Europe.
There is a fundamental reason why countries want to be a part of the EU and why members are not trying to withdraw: In this global age, we are simply better off politically, economically and socially as part of a collective that can punch its weight on the international scene.
Try telling the new Central and Eastern European countries as well as the former dictatorships Spain and Portugal that the assumptions of the last 50 years no longer hold true, and that peace and democracy across Europe is no longer relevant.
Whatever the problems of accession, the strict expectations of democracy and human rights are bringing countries into line with the freedoms we take for granted. The mere opening of negotiations with Turkey has led to its government improving human and trade-union rights, as well as the situation with the Kurdish minority.
Fed by myth and misnomer, the view that the EU is at best a necessary burden and, at worst, a Nazi conspiracy pervades the electorate from all parties, although the successes of the “F” word — federalism — can be seen in advances made through the EU on environment, peace and security. Good examples include the monitoring mission in Aceh, which is helping to dismantle the props of a 25-year civil war, as well as international aid.
Federalism is behind the Tory plan to withdraw from the EPP. The Christian Democrats are too federalist for Cameron’s Tories and they need to withdraw to choose an a la carte Europe — a view that more reasonable Tory MEPs realize is untenable in a political framework that works because of group votes, compromise and deals.
That Cameron has pledged to make such a move comes as no surprise from a man advised by George Eustice, the former leader of the “no” campaign in the Southwest of England and adviser to the U.K. Independence Party. That Hague is churning out the same old stuff does come as a surprise from a man who lost the 2001 election following a countdown to save the pound.
The real and lasting problem for the Tories is that until they move away from their identity crisis over Europe, they are stuck in the past. Those who oppose television, promote homophobia and celebrate the birthdays of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini are not suitable bedfellows for any serious center-right leader.
To have any chance of winning an election, Cameron needs to move from being yesterday’s man to tomorrow’s leader — where Europe is not an issue but rather a venue for political advancement.
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