Tell the truth about Europe

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The Independent Online
NOTHING better illustrates the arid futility of contemporary British politics than last week's House of Commons debate on Europe. Here was a simple motion - about whether MPs thought the Government's approach was in the country's best interests - free from the impenetrable technicalities of fishing rights, budgetary contributions and farm quotas. Here was an opportunity for leading politicians to declare themselves on the most important question facing the country in half a century. Yet nobody on the front benches, and few on the backbenches, dared to get to the heart of the matter. The European Union will, in all probability, require British ministers and MPs to cede control of the most central areas of government policy. Do we want this or don't we?

Labour would agree to join a single currency, its leader proclaimed in Wednesday's debate. Yet Tony Blair was one of the worst offenders in evading the European issue. He professed to agree with the Chancellor: a single currency was not a threat to the nation state, it would not lead to political union, it would not require "giving up the government of the UK". But what does the government of the UK mostly consist of? Which area of policy matters most to ordinary people? Which ministerial portfolio is most coveted? As the notice in George Bush's office had it, "It's the economy, stupid". A British Chancellor's economic policy would be severely constrained by a single currency. To think otherwise is fantasy. He could not, manifestly, impose exchange controls or devalue the currency. He could not borrow to spend his way out of a recession; he could not lower interest rates to boost economic activity; he could not risk higher inflation in an attempt to bring down unemployment. He could not do these things because they would affect the stability and value of a currency that belonged to other people, not just to us. Deprived of the traditional armoury of economic policy, he could do almost nothing to ease even the most catastrophic slump - 10 million unemployed, say - without the active assistance of our European partners.

To argue that no responsible Chancellor would wish to inflate, that exchange controls are now unthinkable, that economic policy is now, in any case, dictated by the international money markets is to miss the point. Economic sovereignty consists in the freedom to please yourself, to defy the markets, to do the unthinkable, to be gloriously irresponsible if there is sufficient political and public support. Likewise, political sovereignty consists in the freedom to go to war. This, too, would be all but impossible under a single currency because wars nearly always involve huge public expenditure and debasement of the currency.

The Euro-sceptics threaten the populace with the bogey of Brussels, an alien power dictating how the British run their affairs. They can do so with some plausibility. European rulings - on employment conditions, legal cases and food labelling, for example - already cause enough public indignation. Imagine the outcry if mortgage rates were, in effect, determined on the Continent - as nobody seriously denies that they would be.

But this is where our politicians fail. The sceptics talk of Brussels "diktaks" as though there were no alternative; the pro-Europeans pretend that nothing important need be decided outside Westminster. Neither side addresses the important argument. How can we design a European government that is democratically accountable? Can we give the British - and, for that matter, the Greeks, the French, the Belgians and the Danes - a sense of what sociologists would call "ownership" over the Brussels decision- makers? Or, to put it crudely, suppose we have a European version of Kenneth Clarke presenting a budget in Strasbourg in 2001: how do we sack him? These questions inevitably mesh with the question of whether we want a European government at all. But if we have a single currency there will be a European government which may not have powers comparable to those of, say, the federal governments in Washington or Canberra but will be much closer to such models than anything we have at present. Politicians should stop wasting our time and theirs by pretending otherwise.

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