Adrian Hamilton: We're still waiting for that debate on Europe

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The Independent Online

The Tories and the Liberal Democrats have managed to achieve one thing at least over Europe. After their antics in the Commons over the past week, no one in the public will ever want to hear the word "referendum" again. It has become just another tactic in the parliamentary battle, a matter which has ceased to be about principle, only advantage.

Gordon Brown, of course, will be delighted. Indeed, at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday – and in the interview David Miliband had on Radio 4's Today programme that morning – the Government seemed more self-confident than it has been since the start of the Lisbon treaty debates. It senses it has batting the question back into the long grass where voters will forget it.

Not that it has any reason for self-congratulation. Whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular referendum, the fact is that it was promised by a Labour Prime Minister and committed to in the election manifesto of all three main parties. If an elected parliament is the British way of democracy, as the opponents of the referendum insist, then the promises to the electorate should be paramount. The question of when is a constitution not a constitution and a treaty a matter of sovereignty is so much sophistry.

Even accepting that a referendum is not going to happen, the Government and the British political establishment should recognise the democratic loss it represents. As a means of settling the question of the Lisbon treaty, a manifesto would have been hopeless. There is no way that you could have got a straight answer to a straight question in this partisan play. But it would at least have forced the parties to address the public as to how they saw the future of Europe and Britain's place in it. Without that debate, Europe languishes in a nether region where neither Labour nor the Tories, nor even indeed the Lib Dems, are prepared to come out and state their true views.

They don't do so for fear, of course, of exposing the divisions within their own parties on the issue, between Europhiles and Europhobes, between those who still see us joining the euro and those who say never and, in the Tory case at least, between those who want out of the EU altogether and those who want to stay in but on a looser arrangement.

But they also don't want to talk about it because politicians know that there is no democratic will, in England at least, behind Europe. People know it's there. They probably fear the disruption of a complete withdrawal but, on the matter of its direction and its structure, they would rather not know. If only it would just go away.

Without that democratic legitimacy, Britain has lacked influence in the EU. Prime Ministers can talk of all the things they are going to take a lead on in Europe – Gordon Brown was at it in the Common s yesterday – but unless you can actually deliver your country on contentious European measures, why should anyone else take you seriously. And if you won't talk about.your European aims and concerns at home, how can you ever formulate a policy for your engagement with the Continent.

Mr Brown talked boldly yesterday of Britain taking the lead in Europe on international aid, security, globalisation and the environment. But these are just the litany he has repeated on every occasion while Chancellor. They are simply grandstands from which Britain can proclaim ownership of popular causes, not European policies to which we wish to contribute.

The hard questions are how far are we prepared to let the EU take a lead on air transport, even at the cost of damaging Heathrow's position as the European hub? To what extent will we allow the commission to take a lead on monopoly rules and tax avoidance, even at the cost of scaring away investors from London? What do we think about the EU defence forces taking over the role of Nato inside and outside the Balkans? And how far are we willing to support a Europe-wide financial co-ordination of measures to combat the fear of recession and the effects of the credit squeeze?

The British Prime Minister is not alone in ducking these issues. At this time, the EU lacks leadership and popular legitimacy. Nicolas Sarkozy is spinning like a top into heaven's knows where, Angela Merkel of Germany is under serious political pressure at home, the Spanish premier Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is at the start of a tight election.

But it is precisely because of the confusions of Europe at the moment that Britain needs to make up its mind as to what sort of Europe it wants there to be and what it will do to effect that. The referendum would not have sorted that out but the debate over it could have elucidated the questions. Now, all Britain has to offer is a few grand words and a lot of obfuscation.