Tuesday, October 26, 2004

A tool of government

It is a bit rich of The Times, in its leader today, to call for "the debate to begin" on EU asylum and immigration policy when it, like most of the media, has been seriously derelict in its handling of EU affairs for years.

Nevertheless, we can welcome some of its comments on the issue, when it observes that "the way the debate has been conducted, or not conducted, is a disgrace", adding that "too much European policy is kept secret for fear of stirring embarrassing debate."

And quelle surprise, the mighty Thunderer believes that the secrecy is "undemocratic" and that, on this issue, "the Prime Minister is being less than straight."

Despite all this, this leader and few other newspapers add much light to the issue and we hold to our opinion that the media – and Conservative politicians – are missing the point.

We ourselves laboured to understand the position but it seems pretty clear that the opt-out negotiated at Amsterdam is a cast-iron protection against having to adopt EU policy – if the government chooses to take advantage of it.

That, in fact, is the central question: not what the EU might impose on us but what our own government is prepared to accept voluntarily. And, as we see with the commission communications adopted last Friday on terrorism, the devil is in the detail – which the newspapers generally rarely think worthy of reporting.

As we stand, however, nothing has actually changed. If anything – despite the posturing of David Davis, the government's position accords almost entirely with the Conservative idea of a "live and let live Europe". How many times have we heard Howard say that if the other member states want further integration, then we should not stop them, as long as they do not want us to follow?

Well, by removing the veto, our colleagues can make policy under QMV until their hearts are content, but those policies do not apply to us unless the government makes a specific decision that they should. This, there is no surrender of sovereignty in the action of giving the colleagues their QMV. The surrender will come later, in dribs and drabs, as the government opts in, usually on technical and obscure issues, which by themselves mean little but, cumulatively, add up to major losses of sovereignty.

By then, of course, the media will have gone back to sleep, which is of course, what the government and the "colleagues" rely on. To that extent, the government does not need to keep its European policy secret. The media, quite voluntarily, has been doing that job for years, thus acting as a tool of government. All the signs are that it will continue to do so.

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