Martin Whitlock - political writings 2001-2004

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The problem with "no"

21 June 2004

Saying "no" is not enough. When people start to question UKIP's alternative they will find the answers to be pretty thin.

De Gaulle famously did it; Margaret Thatcher and John Major both did it from time to time; now Tony Blair has been up to it and the United Kingdom Independence Party has just won a large slice of the British seats in the European Parliament by doing it. Saying "No" to British engagement with Europe is a popular and enduring political pastime.

With the battleground being staked out for the referendum on the new European constitution, the crude polarisation of "yes" and "no" is now a fixed feature of the political landscape. Up until now the "no"-sayers have made most of the running. But Tony Blair has been canny in projecting a long time-frame for this engagement, for as time wears on the seductive simplicity of the "no" will start to look less seductive and more simple. Too simple and too thin.

Perhaps de Gaulle was right; certainly if the original six had stuck to their federalist project a truly united Germany, France, Italy and Benelux would now be a serious power in the world. But saying "no" is hard work; de Gaulle had his reasons but his successors, lacking his wartime experience of British political methods, were less wary. Looked at like this, there is a case for seeing Britain's belated determination to join the Common Market as a classic nineteenth century power play, a move intended to destroy an alliance which, if it did not actually threaten Great Britain, at least threatened to render it irrelevant. Did Britain join Europe only to start saying "no" as soon as it was let in? If so, it was a masterpiece of Foreign Office skulduggery that raises the question: did Ted Heath know?

Irrespective of the intention, the effect of Britain's membership has been to re-engineer the European menu from the prix fixe of French country restaurants into the a la carte more familiar to British diners. The preferred mechanism has been the opt-out - a diplomatic Trojan horse that was developed as an expediency to permit progress in areas where the need for unanimity would otherwise have brought the process grinding to a halt. As such, it was attractive to those members who did not wish their integrationist aspirations to be curtailed; but, once admitted, it undermined the universalist principles of the founding fathers that had guided the European project since its inception.

If those principles had been adhered to, progress towards union might have been slower but the project would have been kept on the rails. Now, with the precedents from the social chapter and the single currency to show the way, opt-outs are springing up all over the place. The new constitution as finally agreed contains several more, including the right to opt out of measures of co-operation in criminal justice. This last is interesting, because in general the British government favours co-operation in this area. It seems that Britain would like other countries to co-operate with its own system but fears the consequences of co-operating with theirs. Such fastidiousness misses the point, because the E.U. is not structured to establish standards at a lowest common denominator. Only rarely will states vote for systems less good than their own, so harmonised standards are generally way above the previous average. So the opt-out does not help Great Britain; it merely allows those with poor standards in this area to go on doing a lousy job if they want to.

It should be no surprise that saying "no" has negative consequences. One of the triumphs with which Mr Blair has returned from the treaty negotiations is that there will not now be majority voting on measures to tackle cross-border tax fraud. He must be particularly pleased with this one. In the interests of preserving a veto on fiscal policy generally he has denied the E.U. the tools it needs in an area that can only be tackled effectively at a supra-national level. It is an area of particular importance to a government committed to increasing its tax take without those headline grabbing increases that New Labour so fears. But now the future of European co-operation on tax fraud lies with the governments of Malta, Cyprus, Italy and Estonia (among others), whose veto is no less valid that Britain's own.

Such "no"-saying and the issuing of red lines in the political negotiations do not assist Mr Blair in projecting the E.U. in the positive light that he will shortly need. They give credence to a view of Britain's relationship with the E.U. as a David and Goliath struggle for control of the nation's destiny. Into the space thus created arrive UKIP and its even less savoury cousins on the nationalist side of the argument. The problem with UKIP in particular is that its own succinct "no"-saying is equally unproductive. Saying "no" is not enough to convince people; under the spotlight of a lengthy campaign there has to be a viable and more attractive alternative on offer, a positive proposal that goes beyond the "pull up the drawbridge and throw away the key" mentality that gives such parties their initial impetus.

Europe is littered with such introspective nationalist movements, and the UKIP phenomenon is only the latest of a string of European electoral upsets of this nature. As the recipients of protest votes they are primarily attractive for not being one of the parties that habitually hold power. For UKIP to start to engage in the European political process would be for them to deny their mandate, which is disengagement. On the other hand, if the best strategy they can come up with for their relationship with the European Parliament is to try to wreck it, they will make themselves irrelevant before they've even begun.

When it comes to the constitutional referendum, therefore, the rise of UKIP may help the Prime Minister by keeping the argument focussed on the crude yes/no to Europe. Most Britons know that thoughts of leaving the E.U. are an idle and destructive fantasy; the longer UKIP has to put its rejectionist case the more it will be tested, and the thinner the arguments are going to seem. If he is lucky, the most that Mr Blair will have to do to get his referendum is to counter the more lurid imaginings of the Euro-sceptics about the contents of a document they have not read.

So the pro-constitution argument may be won by default. TINA (there is no alternative) will have gained the day. But in that case the strong pro-European case will, once more, not have been put. The historic argument will rumble on until the next crisis moment. UKIP may follow the Referendum party into the political dustbin but another anti-European movement will surely follow in its wake.


©Copyright Martin Whitlock 2004