European elections: the victory of Euroscepticism

This article appeared in the Evening Standard
This anti-Europe spasm will take Britain nowhere
8 June 2009

The hammer blows from voters continue to smash down upon Labour. Yesterday's disastrous showing in the European Parliament election will be seized upon by those urging the Prime Minister's removal and an early general election. But the real winner is British Euroscepticism.
The nearly 60 per cent of votes cast for parties broadly hostile to today's EU now has to be taken seriously, as Britain's political class works out how to deal with the apparently unsolvable European question.
Sadly, Britain now also joins other European countries in electing two racist, extremist MEPs from the BNP. The party leader, Nick Griffin, is anti-Semitic and will join France's Jew-hating National Front and other anti-Semitic and racist MEPs in Strasbourg. British mainstream political parties can no longer dodge the BNP question and why xenophobic politics are digging such deep roots in Britain.
Yet the miserable turn-out, not much better than for local council elections, the absence of any serious policy debate and the overwhelming dominance of the MPs' expenses scandal mean that last Thursday's European poll was as much about domestic politics as the future of Europe. This is odd, as the European Parliament is important and influential — and will become more so if, as looks likely, the Irish will ratify the Lisbon Treaty.
The European Parliament is increasingly the co-legislator on trade, harmonising standards so that goods can be sold in 27 different nations without different national regulations, and on global environmental policy. MEPs also say Yes or No to the President of the Commission and to its commissioners.
So battling for British interests in Strasbourg and Brussels is what our MEPs are tasked with. Instead, the European election was fought, as it always is, on domestic national politics: thus Britain has chosen to send a majority of MEPs to Strasbourg who do not like the EU, who will claim the maximum of expenses — Ukip's Nigel Farage boasted he had trousered more than £2 million in his 10-year stint as an MEP — and whose main desire is to see Britain move to the exit door of the EU.
The slump in the Conservative vote to less than 30 per cent should worry David Cameron, even though Labour has deeper wounds to lick. The Conservatives are relentless in promoting their anti-European line. But Cameron cannot concede the politics of total withdrawal, which would leave Britain isolated on the world stage, with dwindling significance to the United States, China, India or Russia.
This goes to the heart of the Tory dilemma over Europe. Voters assume that if the EU is as bad as William Hague paints it, then Britain should be out. So the Ukip or even BNP vote allows British citizens who dislike Europe to speak the truth that the Tories dare not utter — that the logical end of Euroscepticism has to be withdrawal.
Every political leader in Europe calls for a better, reformed EU. But to achieve that desirable goal requires engagement in, not rejection of, the European Parliament. Yet in a couple of weeks, the new Tory and Ukip MEPs will turn up in Strasbourg but have nothing to do.
The Conservatives will not sit down and work with fellow centre-Right parties headed by Nicolas Sarkozy or Angela Merkel, even though both did well yesterday. The Tories are pledged to form a new alliance with homophobic Polish Right-wingers and a Czech party whose leader believes global warming is a myth.
This small grouping will be powerless and marginal. British ambassadors in EU capitals are openly expressing concern about a Tory government with William Hague as foreign secretary, in open conflict with major EU governments.
As a result, British businesses and NGOs cannot turn to Tory MEPs to advance their interests. Mr Cameron's isolationist politics turns Tory MEPs into political eunuchs, without power or influence to promote UK plc or any other cause which requires winning support from fellow centre-Right MEPs.
Yet Labour can offer little alternative. Despite Tony Blair's promise to place Britain at the heart of Europe, Labour's failure to make the case for engagement has left Britain as the EU's most faint-hearted member. Blair made pro-European speeches — but usually on the continent and rarely in Britain.
Ministers have seen the EU as a source of problems and irritation, not an opportunity to create new networks of British influence. Blair and Brown have appointed as many Europe ministers as Labour's years in office, while two of Labour's four foreign secretaries have come from the Eurosceptic wing of the party.
Margaret Thatcher spent £25 million to promote Britain in Europe in the advertising campaign of the late 1980s to get Britain ready for the single market. When I was Europe minister, my budget to explain the EU to voters was slashed to £200,000, a derisory amount given the billions Whitehall spends promoting its preferred policies.
Yet while voters and politicians turn their backs on Europe, citizens embrace the EU as never before. There are more Brits living in Europe, running businesses or owning homes there than ever before in our history. Our low-cost airlines take advantage of the single market to make the whole of the EU the place where we shop, drink and relax. Our universities all have thriving European departments.
So while our politics remains more and more hostile to Europe, our lived experience becomes ever more integrated. Indeed even the good showing for anti-European ideology in this election also shows Britain becoming more, not less, continental, as the Continent's nationalist and xenophobic politics cross the Channel to become commonplace in Britain.
Like the great 19th-century political questions of free trade or Ireland, which divided British politics for decades until some consensus was found, the question of Britain in Europe will agitate our political class for the foreseeable future. Right now Euroscepticism has triumphed. But no British government will ever dare offer an official policy of full withdrawal.
Thus we will hear sound and fury over Europe and send many MEPs to Strasbourg with little to do but claim expenses. Until we can reach a pro-European consensus Britain, alas, will remain a sour, crabbed member of an EU in which we should and could lead with panache, confidence and style.