Thomas Kielinger: It is time for the UK to choose. Do you want in or out?

Forgive me when I conclude that Euroscepticism is part of the British DNA


I see crunch time arriving for Britain in Europe. Not because of UKIP, incidentally. Their success in the European elections simply cashes in on what has been building up for many, many years.

I see crunch time arriving for Britain in Europe. Not because of UKIP, incidentally. Their success in the European elections simply cashes in on what has been building up for many, many years.

Come on, my friends, Europe is the unloved child of even the enlightened debate within the Sceptred Isle. I don't believe a word of what I hear from the powers that be about wanting to be at the heart of Europe. Well, wish for it they might, but you know that actions speak louder than words and for seven New Labour years I have laboured under the contradiction between this splendid Sunday-school European rhetoric and the absence of any attempt to proselytise for what the Government pretends to believe in. A greater credibility gap one cannot readily conceive.

May I ask your forgiveness when I conclude that Euroscepticism must be part of the British DNA? Let me explain where I come from. I'm not some kind of rosy-eyed German federalist simpleton who fails to grasp the first principles of British history and instead tries to teach the rest of the world, this blessed plot to begin with, the great lessons of Germany's failed national curriculum vitae. Rather, I look at your European conundrum with a great sense of kinship almost, for I, too, have been something of a sceptic all my life about this fudge majeur called Europe.

My point, and a somewhat realpolitical one at that, is simply this: there comes a time when one has to make a choice, since continuing in this drift of unrequited action on the one hand and words that only a suspension of disbelief can make believable on the other is not going to be possible.

When Labour followed the Conservatives and promised the people a referendum on the euro it was a tacit admission that to win an election in this country you have to be seen in a kind of beware-of-Europe disguise, much as this might countervail your otherwise full-flown rhetoric about the beauty of the European settlement.

In the case of the euro this juggling act has continued since Tony Blair's first year in office, when the Prime Minister nailed the issue to the mast of Gordon Brown's five criteria, thus ensuring that the whole issue of the pound inside the euro became first mute and then virtually dead - ie undead. In strictly economic terms there never is a good moment to join, it's rather the other way around: the longer you wait the more circumstances will militate against joining.

Now another referendum has been declared, about a treaty that hasn't even been decided upon. It, too, showed the PM at his most defensive. Cajoled by public clamour, the Conservatives and dissent within his own ranks he could not but change his mind on the merits or demerits of a referendum and yield to the prevailing Eurosceptic mood.

My British friends remind me that, in cases of constitutionally charged issues like giving up your currency or signing up to a treaty that has clear constitutional implications, there is no way a political leader can avoid offering a referendum. Fair enough. I'm not trying to criticise this state of affairs. The advice I am being given and my own perception actually converge on what I call scepticism about the European settlement whenever it goes beyond the Single European Act or related matters of trade. I am trying to take the world as it is.

That's why I see crunch time arriving for Britain, and why I think the debate about the treaty, once it is joined, and if it ever is joined, will be one of the most important caesuras in the political life of the nation, a defining moment in every sense of the word. You can't sit on the fence indefinitely.

Now Europe, afflicted by Eurosclerosis and thus severely hampered in the race for global competitiveness, could do a lot to spur the British debate along in the direction of a Europe-friendly outcome. Who on this side of the channel would in his right mind want to integrate further with a group of countries that have so badly failed their own benchmarks as set in the Lisbon agenda of 2000, as far as labour market flexibility is concerned, deregulation and growth? Instead, what we get is a lot of grandstanding and dark hints from Paris and Berlin that they might want to lead the way into a core Europe kind of settlement should the British reject the treaty/constitution in their referendum.

Don't be intimidated. This is a lot of hot air. Germans too wish to preserve the twin threads of our foreign policy alignment: a strong relationship across the Atlantic as well as strong ties with our European partners and friends. A France-German core Europe concept would be the most damaging faux pas de deux imaginable. It would strain our alliance with France to breaking point.

So British voters should weigh the referendum issue on its own merits, outside exogenous influences. But weigh them you must, sine ira et studio. For Euroscepticism may be a state of mind, but is does not a policy make. I look forward to the debate.

Thomas Kielinger is the UK correspondent of the German daily Die Welt

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