Has the British tabloid press reached peak rant? Like “peak oil”. The Sun this week claimed that “the Prime Minister turned the Lisbon banquet into a sordid Last Supper for Britain as an independent sovereign country”. Whoo! Some supper. More than ever before, the entire tone of the debate about Europe in the UK seems deranged. But this time out, it also seems to be increasingly recognised that this is so.
In a sense, the whole row has become conventionalised to a degree where it is a mere set of gestures. I recall the debates about the Euro in the late 90s and early 00s, and on the various treaties of the same period, to say nothing of the Maastricht ratification, the daddy of them all. This has had none of the same fire, despite the Sun reaching new heights of linguistic escalation and new depths of journalistic debasement. According to them, the treaty will create a mixed-manned European army and give the European Union (whether the commission or whoever is left unstated) Britain’s seat on the UN Security Council.
Weirdly, no-one ever says what will become of France’s UNSC seat.
The interesting thing, however, is that it’s as if all sides agree that a formal Euro-row is necessary, quite independently of its content. Both the British government, and to quite a large measure the opposition, agree with most of the treaty and the constitution before it. Introducing the national parliaments as a counter-centralising force is welcome to them. So is ending the ridiculous position of a High Representative who formulates and represents EU foreign policy but who leaves the means of carrying it out to an External Affairs Commissioner. Qualified-majority voting on more administrative issues is welcome to the government, and probably welcome to the Conservatives if they were honest about it. Fixing the voting system within the institutions is welcome to everyone. Eurosceptics can hardly oppose the clauses that make the arrangements for a state to quit the Union, can they?
But despite the fact that the government got what it wanted, we have to have these “red lines”; the Tories claim they are spurious. Indeed they are – but they are only there because the Tories badgered the government to have them!
It’s not even as if there is a mighty Eurosceptic groundswell of opinion. The treaty is not popular, but the principle of EU membership commands a good majority – 56 per cent in favour and 38 per cent against. Assuming no great conversion, which is fair enough, you’d expect the don’t knows to break evenly – which suggests that a new referendum would probably replicate the result of 1975. Even so, I find it hard to agree with Clive; having a referendum on EU membership feels too much like having a referendum on dihydrogen monoxide.
But of course that isn’t good enough. One of the depressing things about the Blair years was that what little campaign power the European cause had in Britain was allowed to fall apart.