Friday, May 21, 2004

Raising the game

Comment

Question Time on BBC 1 last night, dedicated to EU issues, had Patricia Hewitt, Blair’s trade and industry minister and chief groupie for the EU constitution. Offering what is clearly the "government line" on the constitution, she stated very clearly that the "basic issue" in the referendum (if we actually get one) is whether we are "in or out" of Europe. "In or out is the fundamental question".

This was picked up by Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, with a revealing analysis by Andrew Marr. He readily admitted that the government feels it must "scare" people into voting for the constitution by presenting a picture of the dire consequences of leaving. "If they (the voters) look at the detail of the constitution… the government feel they have very little chance of winning the referendum", quothe Marr.

Therein lies the fundamental dishonesty behind the government’s case. It boldly proclaims that it wants a debate on "Europe" but, in truth, the last thing Blair and his cronies want is that debate. The last thing the government wants is an informed populace, knowledgeable on the issues, and aware of the detail. Instead, they want a cowed, ignorant, mass, scared into submission by the thought of a Britain "isolated" on the fringes, running for succour to the comforting embrace of "Mother Europe".

Clearly, information is the antidote to this cloying, negative, patronising view of the British people, a nation of wimps who must be cosseted and comforted, and above all protected from the realities of that frightening world outside "Europe".

So saying, in the Question Time discussion last night, the possible alternatives to the EU were raised, and Hewitt got in first by dismissing the Norway option, this nation receiving its laws "by fax" from the EU, over which it had no part in making.

Hewitt does, in fact, have a point. As part of the EEA, Norway is obliged to obey single market rules, and is automatically required to implement laws from the EU, about which she is consulted, but has no vote. Frankly though, with only 13 percent of the vote in the Council, UK is not in a much better position, as it can easily be over-ruled under qualified majority voting, but that is not the point. In many respects, Norway out of the EU is not that much different from being in.

Nevertheless, Eurosceptics are fond of quoting the Norway option – as indeed they are the Swiss option – as an alternative to full EU membership. But neither are ideal and while they might suit those countries, are unlikely to be entirely suitable for the UK.

There are other options, such as walking away from any specific relationship with the EU and relying on the general rules of GATT to ensure fair trading. In the meantime, we could forge closer relationships with the Commonwealth, non-aligned LDC and perhaps the Cairns group, to form a powerful trading block, as a wedge between the protectionist forces of both the EU and the USA.

In other words, there are more options available than swapping the "pram" of EU membership for the "reins" of associate membership. If the issue is really a question of "in or out", then the options available must be explored more fully. The Eurosceptics must raise their game. While Marr reminded us at the end of his piece, "officially" the issue is not "in or out", the Hewitt comments clearly point to the government’s intended tactics. The "no" campaign must be prepared for them.

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