Bruce Anderson: Europe must be a priority for the Tories

At some stage, there must be a full-scale renegotiation of our relations with the EU

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There was never much chance that Ireland would rescue the Tories from the Lisbon Treaty. After the credit crunch, the Celtic tiger lost its confidence. For months, the Irish have been bullied, bribed and blackmailed. They were told that if they behaved themselves, largesse would rain down on them. If they persisted in error, there might be another potato famine. Predictably, they buckled.

The Tory leadership still has hopes of Poland and the Czech Republic, who have yet to ratify. In both cases, the decision-making is caught up in the interstices of domestic politics and the legal system. In each case, it could take time and there is uncertainty. So the question about a Tory government's response to a fully ratified Lisbon is still hypothetical enough to give David Cameron an excuse not to answer it. That will not prevent it from being asked.

Mr Cameron and his closest advisers have been aware of this problem for at least 18 months. During that time, one might have expected them to come up with plan B: what to do in the worst-case scenario of Lisbon in place and a flat refusal to re-open the question. But if such a plan does exist, I have had no inkling of it.

The Cameroons are Eurosceptics. David Cameron himself is wholly free from the taint of federasty. But the Tory leadership would much prefer not to have a punch-up with the EU. They do not wish to condemn their party to yet another of the rows that were so destructive in the Nineties, especially when they have so many other priorities and such a demanding agenda. Yet there may be no choice, for politicians are not always allowed to set their own agenda. In this case democracy and morality will demand a say.

Before the 2005 election, Tony Blair gave a guarantee that there would be a referendum on the EU constitution. That helped him to win. After winning, the Government broke its word, on the pretext that the Lisbon Treaty was a significantly different document, something which no serious person believes. So Tony Blair and Gordon Brown reneged on their promise. In order to justify this breach of faith, they misrepresented the true nature of the Lisbon Treaty. Over the centuries, not all British politicians have been honest. But I cannot think of any modern instance of dishonour and dishonesty which even comes remotely close. For that, we would have to return to the reign of Charles II and the secret dealings with France, generally agreed to be one of the lowest moments in British history.

Now we have another one. Messrs Blair and Brown are as shameless as Charles II. But much better men ought to be careful lest they, too, are entered in the roll of dishonour. Geoffrey Howe, Douglas Hurd, Chris Patten and David Hannay, the former Ambassador, who is now a People's Peer, despite being as much of a populist as Coriolanus; these are all honourable men. They are also Euro-fanatics, which appears to override every other consideration. As long as a measure weakens Britain's power to make its own laws and defend its own freedoms, as long as it increases Europe's power to regulate and rule in this country – no stratagem to implement it seems unacceptable to these good and great men. Electoral deception, breaches of faith, breaches of the basic moral covenant that ought to exist between government and the governed: cynicism, dishonour and lying. The four Peers are admirable men. Yet it seems that they will put up with anything in order to advance the cause of Europe. It does not seem to occur to them that there might be something wrong with a cause which depends on such despicable tactics.

Gordon Brown had never been popular among EU ministers and heads of government (they are not always wrong about everything). Then, one day, he was applauded on arrival. Why? Because he had gone back on his word to hold a referendum. That is how a British prime minister earns applause in Europe. There is something fundamentally flawed, not only with the democratic credentials, but with the entire ethical stance of any organisation that behaves in such a way. The proponents of the EU argue that it grew out of continental liberalism, which is all the more admirable for having survived the terrible first half of the 20th century. There were liberal progenitors, but judging by the way in which the EU conducts itself, there are also influences from some of the other continental traditions that have been so dominant: illiberal, authoritarian and anti-democratic ones.

There is a similar ambivalence in EU economics. From the outset, free marketeers were working for a genuine common market. But there have also been protectionists, most notably in agriculture. For 50 years, the French have been able to play on German war guilt to pay for the CAP – or corrupt agricultural policy, as it ought to be known. But the protectionism is now extending into labour markets. With their high unit-costs, the Germans have been worrying about wage competition, and even if there is a re-assertion of free markets under the new coalition government, the French will still be a nuisance. They regard the Anglo-Saxon attitude to employment policies with a mixture of horror, resentment and envy. Because the Blair government threw away the opt-out on the social chapter, there is a danger that the French may be able to force us to import some of their labour-market sclerosis.

That could be disastrous. The Cameron government will have to tax, cut and grow its way out of the deficit crisis. Anything that discourages employers from hiring workers would impede that vital growth. It would also make it harder to achieve welfare reform. Measures to force malingerers and the idle young off benefits and into work will depend on the willingness of employers to create jobs. At that point, as at many others, the European agenda intersects with the domestic one. The path towards the necessary reforms is blocked, by a flag with twelve stars.

At some stage, there will have to be a full-scale renegotiation of Britain's relations with the EU. But Lisbon is the first priority. Time and energy will have to be found for it amid all the other first priorities. Although that may sound difficult, Margaret Thatcher had to fight European battles as well as domestic ones in her early years. Whatever he does about Trident and the aircraft carriers, David Cameron will have to recommission the handbag.

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