Adrian Hamilton: Anti-Europeanism has become the new consensus

Rarely can the EU have been so in need of leadership and rarely has it been so bereft of it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

These are dark days for anyone in Britain who believes in Europe. And they are going to get darker.

It is not just the EU summit which shows the Union at its haggling worst and the Prime Minister at his most obviously ill-prepared. He is at the heart of Europe at last and for all the worst reasons.

Nor is it the election of David Cameron as leader of the Conservative Party that has so darkened the europhile horizons, although the prospect is bad enough to have had Ken Clarke voicing his concerns within days of the Cameron elevation. The brutal fact is that Cameron is not only an instinctive and committed eurosceptic himself but he has surrounded himself with figures who could be quite accurately described as anti-European. They don't believe in the project and most of them, when pressed, wouldn't mind Britain leaving it altogether.

What is really depressing, however, is that this is all being treated as if it was nothing out of the ordinary, hardly worth the noting. Anti-Europeanism is now regarded as a perfectly obvious, and unexceptional, position in British politics today. And that applies as much to the Labour Government as the Opposition.

Tony Blair has proved disappointing enough, but at least he has some of the rhetoric of belief in Europe. When it comes to Gordon Brown, the whole tone of the Government is likely shift to open scepticism. If nothing else, both Gordon Brown and David Cameron will be vying for Rupert Murdoch's favour, with his visceral distaste for the Union.

That the prejudices of a foreign-based proprietor should hold such sway is humiliating enough. But even if it were not for Murdoch, Brown's natural instinct is a pro-American, anti-European one, and he feels doubly vindicated in this by what has happened to the euro and the European constitution - two issues on which he opposed Blair. If only Robin Cook were still here to keep the balance and provide the wider dimension. On Europe as so much else, Parliament is the smaller for his absence.

Of course, so long as Blair remains at No 10, the pro-European lobby can hope that the British Prime Minister will make a last charge for his place in the history books by becoming a genuine European leader. But the road to that end is paved with the shattered hopes of those who looked to him for the courage of his convictions. Nothing in Blair's last-minute efforts to cobble together a deal in Brussels suggests a change in approach. If anything, it simply indicates a desire to avoid failure in the European presidency so that the Prime Minister can get the issue off his plate as quickly as possible.

It's not all Blair's fault. Rarely can the EU have been so in need of leadership and rarely has it been so bereft of it. The present crop of premiers, old rogues like Chirac and new parochialists like Angela Merkel, is simply not up to the job of responding to the crises of the rejection of the constitution, stumbling growth and budget constraints, while Jose Manuel Barroso's first year as commission president has made even Romano Prodi look distinguished in comparison.

No, the only sensible assumption for any pro-European at this time is to face up to the fact that the cause is in retreat, that the political temper of our times is against it.

That is no council of despair. Far from it. In politics, this is precisely the moment when the proponents of a cause need to come out and fight for it, to reach beyond the politicians to convince the public. There is nothing in the opinion polls or general mood to suggest that the voters in Britain are actively against Europe as such or want positive measures of withdrawal. Rather, they are put off by the endless niggling over farm subsidies and and the overheated rows over economic modernisation which make the EU seem something alien and apart.

Yet there are a number of fundamental issues on which the advantages of speaking with a common voice are obvious and accepted. They include the environment and security as well as the more commercial questions of freedom of movement and services.

Add to that what Europe might become as it enlarges to the east, taking in Muslim Turkey and former Soviet Republics, and what it could do in terms of development aid (the EU's aid budget dwarfs that of Britain and every other country, while it was the EU move on debt relief that really got the Gleneagles debate under way) and research and development, and you have the makings of a perfectly good case for Britain's place at the heart of a developing confederation.

It's a case, however, that won't carry if its proponents now duck for cover and simply crouch there, hoping the wind will blow over.