Leading Article: Europe through a domestic prism

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The Independent Online
THE MANIFESTOS published yesterday by Britain's main parties for the European elections are highly important documents - but not for the reason one might expect. Rather than serving as coherent platforms, covering both detail and principle, for future policies at the European Parliament, they represent the best attempt by British political parties to say in public where they stand on the most divisive issue of the day.

The Conservative manifesto starts from the Gaullist idea of a Europe of nation-states, with its effective but unedifying horse-trading between national governments in the Council of Ministers in Brussels. To this, however, is added the creation of the post-Maastricht Tories: the idea of a Europe as a giant free-trade zone, whose members are to be allowed to approach the Union at different speeds. Sadly, the Tories' atavistic hostility to 'Brussels' and their nostalgia for the sovereignty of Westminster, irrespective of Parliament's power to exercise that sovereignty, brings them closest to the prejudices of the British electorate.

The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, offer a pure form of European federalism, untarnished by either experience of the European Parliament in Strasbourg or by the compromises that must be made by any Government at Westminster that wishes to do business with its European counterparts. There is much in the manifesto that makes good sense - ranging from a European Residents' Charter to a Common Rural Policy, which would replace the absurdities of the CAP with a policy more clearly directed at the interests of consumers and the environment.

For Labour, Europe has an emotional pull as an almost mythical place in which the ideals of social democracy have resisted the harsh realities of modern Britain. Hence the party's obsession with the Social Chapter, and its assumption that every problem may be solved by some Euro-Keynesian initiative or another, whether an investment bank or a recovery fund.

Given that it is through the prism of domestic politics that the three main parties have chosen to cast their European manifestos, can British citizens with a clear conscience view their votes in the forthcoming elections in the same spirit?

At first sight, they cannot. The next European Parliament will not only have a say in the appointment of Jacques Delors' successor as President of the Commission; it will also be invited to vote on the outcome of the next intergovernmental conference, expected to be held in 1996. At that conference, sweeping changes will be made to the Union's structure in order to accommodate the admission of new Nordic members.

Given the immediate concerns of most voters, therefore, ignoring the parties' European manifestos may not matter this time around. But next time, when the European Parliament may have more power, and may have exerted itself as a force for good in the Union, it will matter. Those who wish to be sent there as British representatives will need party platforms of greater solidity.