Thursday, October 21, 2004

The Hugo Young memorial lecture

The Europhiles now have their own saint, in the revered Hugo Young who died last year. And to honour the Guardian’s "great political commentator", yesterday the Guardian hosted a memorial lecture at Chatham House, asking Philip Stephens of the Financial Times to deliver it.

Stephens chose as his subject: "Britain and Europe - unforgettable past, unavoidable future," and the full text of the lecture is on the Guardian website.

Dominic Cummings has written his own review of the lecture on the New Frontiers website, and a heroic effort is it. What we found interesting, though, was Stephens’ admission that: "From the very beginning those who march under a European flag have been less than honest about the nature of the bargain struck with our European neighbours and of the implications for national sovereignty."

He cites the 1971 White Paper on entry, which declared:

There is no question of any erosion of essential national sovereignty; what is proposed is a sharing and enlargement of individual national sovereignties in the general interest,
stating that: "A Sophist, or for that matter a Jesuit, could defend that particular linguistic construction. But to my mind it dodges a central reality. It represents the failure of nerve which lies at the very core of Britain's reluctant Europeanism."

That is an admission worth saving, for re-use when the referendum campaign hots up, for it is the deception that lies at the core of the issue which so many of us find so objectionable. It is nice to have a confirmed Europhile so openly confirm that our entry was indeed based on deception.

For the rest, once the tedious historical references and the serial navel-gazing are stripped away, we find a seriously unhappy bunny. He is fed up with Blair's frequent promises "to end once and for all the ambivalence and ambiguities that haunt our dealings with other European nations" and his failure – as with so many other things – to deliver.

Stephens does not doubt the good intentions of the prime minister – one of the few that doesn’t – and seeks to analyse why his good intentions have given way to political expediency. Iraq, it seems, provides part of the explanation, with Blair choosing to stand alongside George W Bush, but another reason is the lack of a bipartisan consensus in Britain. In other words, the politicians from different parties not agree completely on the line to take on Europe – something Stephens finds deplorable:

…for as long as the European Union remains a political battleground at Westminster, the Europhobic press and that part of our political establishment and public opinion still trapped in the past has a powerful lever against pro-European governments such as that of Mr Blair.
Therefore, all politicians should agree on Europe. Like good little Europeans, we should have consensus, so Stephens despairs at listening to Howard at the Conservative Party conference, giving a speech "as hostile to the European Union as any I have heard" and then trots out the line that is obviously going to be at the core of the "yes" argument in the referendum campaign.

"Pro-Europeans", however, need to admit a bigger failure: "The failure is to describe and explain Europe as it is - to admit that membership of this particular club does involve a diminution of what has been classically understood as national sovereignty and to persuade people that Britain is more prosperous and secure as a consequence."

"To borrow a phrase, he adds, "the price is worth paying."

Although he approves of Blair’s line, he upbraids ministers for treating "Europe" as a battleground, with winners and losers. They and the media fail to acknowledge "the deeper truth" - that we "can all benefit from shared decision-making."

Once again, therefore, we see nothing new, but the transcript is worth reading, not least because it gives some inkling of what the "yes" side is going to major on in the referendum campaign. For instance, Stephens argues that "the Monnet vision has dimmed", the Maastricht Treaty was the high water mark of federalist ambition and "the constitutional treaty" simply "codifies and entrenches the balance between the acquis communautaire and the intergovernmentalism promoted by Britain".

No doubt the man believes this rubbish, and we will, no doubt, hear it many times, from many different mouths. We need to be ready with our rebuttals.

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