There is a profound paradox in the coincidence of this week's series of crisis meetings on the single currency in Brussels and today's House of Commons debate on whether a referendum should be held on the UK's membership of the European Union. On the face of it, Britain's eurosceptics have rarely had it so good. They are seeing the EU and its currency threatened as never before. The euro, the apotheosis for many of the European project, is fighting for its life.
The eurosceptics, what is more, have reason to feel vindicated about some of what has come to pass. Some of the very flaws they identified early on in the EU and its currency are chickens that have come home to roost. The difficulties of maintaining a currency union without political and economic union are now clear for all to see. So, too, are the tensions that result when elected governments defy a national consensus in favour of a greater, European, good. Greece and Germany are both prime examples.
Given that so much in Europe could be interpreted as going the sceptics' way, it seems particularly superfluous for the Commons to be debating a referendum on British membership just now. Why squander precious Parliamentary time on a question that may be decided in the sceptics' favour anyway? If the euro-zone were to collapse, and if the consequence were a looser, more differentiated political union – or even no union at all – then history would have decided for the sceptics; they would have won without a fight.
Of course, such thinking is too simple, and too logical, to have halted today's debate. Depending which side of the Europe question you stand – and this newspaper stands wholeheartedly behind Britain staying in and playing a full part in the EU – this parliamentary occasion is about much more, or much less, than the future of Europe.
It is about the persistence of a particular eurosceptic, Little-Englander, strand of British opinion. It is about the Coalition honouring its pledge on e-petitions – that any motion that receives more than 100,000 supporting signatures will have its day in Parliament. Even more, though, it is about the frustrations of a number, quite a large number, of Conservative MPs, who feel that David Cameron has used the exigencies of coalition to exclude them and the constituents they represent.
Which is why, despite the demonstrated weakness of the European Union and the eurozone at present, this debate is nonetheless so potentially damaging. Although this is contestable, it can at least be argued that Britain has avoided some of the worst effects of the eurozone crisis by dint of not having joined the single currency. As the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary have had to recognise, however – and none of these men, in their pre-government days, was exactly known for their europhile tendencies – Britain's size, its geographical location, and the place occupied by international finance in its economy all mean that this country cannot stand aloof.
If the eurozone fails, a large chunk of the UK economy is endangered, too. More than anything else, it is international apprehension about the eurozone that is stalling economic recovery in Britain. This is why we have in recent months been treated to the unlikely spectacle of eurosceptic ministers insisting that the strength and survival of the eurozone are in Britain's best interests. This is why both Mr Cameron and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, have insisted on imposing a whip on their MPs voting today. And this is why a debate, which would otherwise have been of very little consequence except for the purpose of letting off some eurosceptic steam, could hardly have been less helpfully timed – for Mr Cameron, or for Europe.Reuse content