Fiddles tuned for the Eleventh-Hour Reel

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The Independent Online
THEY ARE going to wreck any chance of a popular European democracy, these people. 'Europe' offers freer trade; amity among once-hostile peoples; the chance of cleaning up this small corner of the earth; huge opportunities for swapping ideas; and a bigger stage for any Briton from almost any background who wants it. Not such a bad prospect, surely, even for the most anally retentive English nationalist in a three-piece tweed suit?

But - damn and blast and a yawn of despair - we seem perpetually condemned to see the European Union only through the opaque, distorting miasma of Conservative Party politics, stuck in a purgatorial offshore mist that turns everything important and interesting into something small and local and dull. There are crusades to be fought to improve the Union, to make it democratic above all, but also to slash back the subsidies and old pals' acts that have grown up since its foundation.

Not for us, though. For us, 'European' news means . . . Tory splits reopened; looming confrontations; this or that obscure backbencher elected to this or that obscure committee; private late-night deals over incomprehensible pseudo-principles; negotiating triumphs about not very much, and compromises that seem to alter the world not a whit. It is all about as European as boiled cabbage, and rather less appetising. I am paid to be fascinated by this stuff, and even I find it terminally dull.

Douglas Hurd told us recently that he wanted the debate to be about real things, not rhetoric. He is a man who recognises the dangers of a political language that cannot be translated into English. But what does he find himself doing, as the Union prepares to admit four new members? He finds himself looking thunderously statesmanlike and talking about qualified majority voting, nodding sagely as the Prime Minister assures us that this is a matter of principle.

Yet the central proposition being defended by the Government is that a voting system which allows Britain to block legislation with the help of two other countries out of 11 is fine - but that one which requires three out of 15 is a great evil. A system that allowed 40 per cent of the EU's population to be outvoted is OK. One which allows 41.5 per cent to be outvoted is not. That 1.5 per cent shift is so dangerous that it must be stopped even at the cost of keeping Norway, Sweden, Finland and Austria out of the Union - though allowing them in is meant to be central to Britain's European policy.

So it follows, if we take this argument seriously, that the Government doesn't think it can argue round three other countries to its views about, say, workers' rights, and the environment. Why not? Either it must think its own arguments are weak, which seems unlikely. Or it must think the rest are beyond reach of reason.

But in that case, we shouldn't be in the European Union at all. We should get out and create a deregulated Northern Singapore, which will boom over the next generation while the over-regulated and unteachable continent declines. (I am, of course, pushing the logic of the Government's position to a ridiculous extreme to make a rhetorical point. But it is worth noting that some leading Conservative anti-Europeans would indeed choose the Singaporean option. We would have a more comprehensible debate, and a more interesting one, if they were brave enough to say so.)

Another of the arguments being used by Britain in the negotiations is that the power of big countries is far less, voter-for-voter, than the power of the small countries. In the Council, Belgium and Greece, with 10 million people each, have half the votes of Britain, (58 million) and Germany (80 million). The small countries have been deliberately over-represented since the Treaty of Rome to stop them being swamped by bigger neighbours. But, the British argument goes, as more small countries join the EU, so the bias against the big ones gets worse.

But proportionality is, from the Tory point of view, a highly dangerous argument. Once you start thinking about the equal weight of every voter, you have conceded the maximal federalist case that we should all be primarily European citizens, not Portuguese or Irish ones. The reason for distinguishing between the size of European countries and their votes is to protect national state identities.

Do Mr Hurd and Mr Major really think the percentage change of voting strength is a central question of principle? I don't believe it. Do they really accept the proportionality argument they put forward? No way. So what is going on?

The old story, obviously. The Thatcherite right is (yawn) considered too great a parliamentary threat for the Government to allow this change to go through unamended. There must be a 'triumph', even if the public finds it incomprehensible and the various Tory factionalists are suspicious.

Party management has long since been elevated to a higher principle than European policy and there is no point whingeing about it, or calling for strong leadership. It won't happen. The notion of a courageous cabinet standing up to Thatcherite rebels has slid, over the past 12 months, from the realm of the politically plausible, to a columnist's idle fantasy. The pro-Europeans in the Cabinet find it convenient not to talk too openly. Some, like David Hunt, have already made sneering party speeches that disqualify them from being considered as such. On the Tory backbenches, the 'positive Europeans', who have been loyally silent, are slowly learning that if they want influence, they get it from this administration via the Today programme or by threatening to rebel.

And so much is being lost, so much optimism and energy squandered, as the interest of the electorate in a new role for Britain is pounded to apathy and disgust by this double-speak and political introversion. Someone once said you should try everything once except incest and folk-dancing: sometimes the Tory debate on Europe seems to consist of little else. So come, let us tune up the fiddles for the 'eleventh-hour showdown' and the 'Tory split averted' and forget we are dancing to the music of the past.