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Moving to the centre ground

Posted by Richard Monday, June 20, 2005

Caution – this post says some (almost) nice things about the Conservative Party.

After the histrionics and the drama, we now move into a predictable period of trench warfare, in which the word "reform" dominates the high ground and shoots anything that moves.

Actually, one almost yearns for the quick death that a well-aimed bullet would bring, but this is the slow death of attrition. We are to be bored to death by the endless repetition of mindless mantras, of which the dreaded "R-word" is pre-eminient.

Another of those words is "reconnect", used by Melanie Phillips in the Daily Mail today, in a piece where she describes Blair as "the greatest political cross-dresser of all time" who has once again stolen his opponent's clothes.

Picking up on yesterday’s Financial Times report, she starts with the theme that Blair will appeal to European opinion over the heads of "Old Europe" to support his plan to use Britain's six-month presidency to reform its sclerotic
institutions.

"You have to pinch yourself to realise that this crisis has been precipitated by Tony Blair, who, with pennants streaming, has ridden out at the head of this epic battle against Old Europe," she writes:

This is the Tony Blair who, as the true European believer, was an evangelist for the euro, ditched dozens of British vetoes in the treaties of Amsterdam and Nice and only a few short weeks ago was proclaiming the merits of the very EU constitution the demise of which he is now busy exploiting. Overnight, it seems, the greatest political cross-dresser of all time has once again stolen his opponents' clothes and reinvented himself.
But, says Philips, "far from the Eurosceptic position that the EU should simply become a trading alliance of self-governing European states and junk the political union at the core of the project," Blair remains a true believer in creating a pan-European government that tells member states what to do. He simply wants to control it so that HE tells them what to do!

In the fight to defend democracy from supra-national institutions that undermine national parliaments, Blair is still firmly on the wrong side. He talks about reconnecting with the public, who, he says, want to modernise the EU. But the institution whose raison d'etre is to obliterate the democratic expression of the different peoples of Europe cannot reconnect with them. It can only alienate them.
It is a measure of quite how unworldly Blair has become that he was quoted on BBC's World at One saying, of his reform programme, "There is a growing hunger in Europe for this debate". Dream on General Custer.

But, if there is a glimmer of hope, it is in The Times today, with the announcement of a campaign to renegotiate the EU treaties, which will start this week with the support of a former Europe minister and Conservative Party chairman. The "European Reform Forum", we are told, is being set up to investigate how the existing "obsolete" treaties can be replaced by a structure that will have the support of Europe's people.

The forum, including David Heathcoat-Amory, the former Europe minister, Lord Tebbit, the former Tory chairman, and Bernard Jenkin, the former Shadow Defence Secretary, will use the British presidency to highlight the case for European reform. It will take evidence in public from politicians, businessmen, economists, lawyers, historians and academics on all sides of the European debate.

This comes on the back of an article in The Business yesterday (link currently down) by Bernard Jenkin, headed: "The Tories must seize the centre ground on EU".

As Labour's EU policy lies in shreds, argues Jenkin, the Conservatives cannot afford to neglect the EU issue – as they appear to be doing – for that means ignoring the fact that EU governments, including our own, will use the present treaties to continue to pursue the failed agenda for integration. If the Conservative Party still refuses to address who makes the laws in our own country, he says, is it any wonder that so many voters conclude that we do not really stand for anything at all?

Democracy, he continues, cannot exist in an entity larger than an independent, sovereign state and this means that the Conservatives must challenge the legitimacy of the existing treaties. They cannot spend the whole of the next Parliament talking about "bringing powers back" while pretending that the present treaties are broadly acceptable, give or take a bit of fish and overseas aid.

Any future Conservative leader needs to recognise that hostility to the EU both at home and on the Continent reflects a deep disquiet about losing national control, not just of laws, but also of accountability for the economic failures in EU countries. The Conservatives must, therefore, set out a genuine alternative agenda, even if that means admitting thay made mistakes at Maastricht and in the Single European Act. Even the Treaty of Rome must change, declares Jenkin. That is the centre ground of politics, in Europe as well as Britain. The Conservatives should seize it.

How startling it is to see an agenda that has always been written off as "extreme" now being described as "the centre ground". If Jenkin and friends are really serious, and can tear themselves away from their little "in-crowd" and genuinely cast about for fresh ideas, they could be on to something.