Mary Ann Sieghart: They are all Eurosceptics now

The Coalition partners aren't nearly as far apart on Europe as most people believe... Power has mellowed both sides

Share

Last week, at a fringe meeting organised by ConservativeHome, the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, took questions from the audience. He had expected a barrage of Euroscepticism from this haven of the Tory right. Instead, he was asked loads about the rest of the world – Brazil, the Middle East, Asia, Africa – and only one about Europe, from a visitor who turned out to be Dutch.

Earlier this year, the European Union Act sailed through the House of Commons, without the tiniest rebellion by Liberal Democrat MPs – even though it promised that a referendum would have to be held before any major EU treaty change could take place. Given the firm Euroscepticism of the British people, this law makes any further integration involving this country pretty unlikely. What do these two incidents tell us? They are part of an untold story at the heart of government: that the two Coalition partners aren't nearly as far apart on Europe as most people believe.

The parties themselves were initially very worried about how they could reconcile their differences. Some Tories thought the Lib Dems wouldn't be able to deliver on the Coalition Agreement, which promised the referendum lock. The Lib Dems, in turn, were shocked when they entered government by how instinctively anti-European their Conservative colleagues were. But power has mellowed both sides and the convergence is now striking.

Hague, in office, is a pragmatic Euro-realist, far from the anti-European caricature he allowed to be drawn in opposition. He now sounds more moderate on Europe even than Sir John Major, who yesterday called for the repatriation of powers from the EU to Britain. When asked about this, Hague bats it away by saying there is no prospect of a new treaty during this Parliament.

The Chancellor, George Osborne, started out with serious doubts about the usefulness of European finance ministers' meetings. Now he prepares for them assiduously and makes an effort to cultivate alliances with his counterparts. As a result, his advice to the eurozone is listened to, not dismissed.

Meanwhile, Tory ministers have found that much of what they complained about in opposition is not even true. They were convinced that EU directives had been "gold-plated" by British governments – that Brussels regulations were made even more onerous by zealous British officials when they were put into law. After the Conservatives won power, they examined some 700 of these regulations and, to their surprise, found no evidence of gold-plating. "We were just wrong about that," admits a cabinet minister ruefully.

As for the Lib Dems, their naive Euro-idealism has dimmed as they have seen Brussels in action. Vince Cable is frustrated by many of the directives that hamper his ability to help business. Danny Alexander, a former director of the pressure group Britain in Europe, is now grappling with trying to negotiate the EU budget downwards. Nick Clegg wants EU regulation made less burdensome to help galvanise growth.

Many of their MPs – some of them junior ministers – are quietly sceptical about Europe. David Laws, Jeremy Browne, Alistair Carmichael, David Heath, Norman Lamb and Tim Farron are a lot less enthusiastic about the EU than, say, past leaders such as Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy or the social democrats who left Labour in 1981 precisely because it was too anti-European. They don't make a lot of noise about it, because it doesn't go down well with their activists, but they know how their constituents feel. One veteran Lib Dem MP despairs of the way the EU takes silly decisions that are bound to be unpopular here. As he puts it: "Brussels shouldn't give a bugger for straight bananas."

Most importantly, the near-collapse of the eurozone has changed the terms of trade between the two parties. The official Lib Dem policy on the euro has been proved to have been plain wrong. Some senior ministers, such as Danny Alexander, have had the grace to admit it; others are less contrite. But for all of them, it removes the biggest bone of contention between the parties over Europe. Not a single Lib Dem in government now thinks we should join the euro any time soon.

In Brussels, it's a different matter. Bizarrely, Osborne has hugely endeared himself to the more fanatically Europhile Lib Dem MEPs by exhorting the eurozone states to become more fiscally and politically integrated. The Chancellor sees it as the logical outcome of a common currency area, one which he has no intention of entering. The MEPs see it as the culmination of their fantasies for a federal Europe which Britain might eventually join. As one Lib Dem minister puts it: "Our raving federalists have got an almost Leninist spirit – they think, 'This is our moment; at last it's going to happen.'" It may do, but without Britain.

Meanwhile, the spat over cats and human rights has been a useful displacement activity for both parties. It has allowed David Cameron and Theresa May to sound robustly anti-European to their sceptical supporters, even though the European Convention on Human Rights has nothing to do with the EU. And it has allowed the Lib Dems (and Ken Clarke) to sound liberal and pro-European. Everyone's happy.

The two sides even agree on what needs to be done. Clegg himself has been pressing inside government for a clarification of Article 8, which deals with the right to a family life – the clause which British judges have cited as a reason for not allowing foreign criminals to be deported. That's exactly what May wants too.

But if peace has broken out for now, can the Coalition survive a whole parliament without a row over Europe? It depends on whether the eurozone members decide they need a new treaty to establish greater economic and political union. If that happens, the sceptical wing of the Conservative Party will push for Britain to demand the repatriation of some powers in return for agreement.

Some Lib Dem ministers even agree with this. They are instinctive localists and wouldn't mind seeing Britain take back control of employment and social affairs, fisheries or agriculture. But that's not how Clegg, Alexander or Chris Huhne feel. They would much prefer to use a treaty renegotiation as an opportunity to win reform of the single market and EU regulations in a way that boosts growth. And they want to make common cause with other states that aren't in the euro to ensure that they don't lose too much influence outside the eurozone.

At least, though, this is an argument about tactics, not strategy. The Lib Dems aren't arguing for Britain to be part of a more federal Europe. Nor, for that matter, is the Labour Party. British business no longer wants to join the euro. Voters wouldn't dream of it. An enormous amount has changed in the past couple of years. We are (almost) all Eurosceptics now.



m.sieghart@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: a duchess by any other name is just wrong

Guy Keleny
A teenage girl uses her smartphone in bed.  

Remove smartphones from the hands of under-18s and maybe they will grow up to be less dumb

Janet Street-Porter
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor