Why are our party leaders refusing to talk about Europe?

Our relationship with the continent is the biggest challenge of our time, writes former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine. Yet our political leaders are so afraid of the far right’s grip on this country that they refuse to do anything about it

Sunday 26 May 2024 13:28 BST
What we need is a mature reassessment of our relationships, within the UK, internationally, and just as vitally with Europe, says former deputy PM Michael Heseltine
What we need is a mature reassessment of our relationships, within the UK, internationally, and just as vitally with Europe, says former deputy PM Michael Heseltine (PA)

We are now at the start of what I foresee will be the most dishonest election of modern times.

What are the issues this country should be discussing? The state of our economy, defence and environment, the need to level up our society, control immigration and restore Britain’s standing in the world. None of these issues can be honestly addressed in isolation from our relationship with Europe.

Yet Europe is the no-go area.

Both major parties are afraid of losing votes to the hard right. Labour needs to rebuild its red wall, while the Conservatives run scared of Reform. Which brings me to immigration. Why cannot the two major parties debate immigration in the round? The boats contain just 5 per cent of those who might or might not be sent to Rwanda. They are a small part of the near-700,000 net immigration figure – the real elephant in the room.

Until we consider the consequences for our farms, care homes, hospitals and universities of culling the numbers, all the talk of change and the constant assertion of “plans” amount to little more than platitudes blowing in the wind. Whatever we decide to do, we need to work more closely with our European neighbours, who share our experiences.

Let me turn to defence. This country relies on Nato. But Nato is threatened by a growing US tendency to isolation as exemplified by Donald Trump. What if the Republican Party reverts to its position in 1940 when it pressed President Roosevelt to promise not to enter the war? He kept that promise until Hitler declared war on America in 1941. Nightmare though that would be, is such a possibility being seriously addressed? We should be discussing a closer defence relationship with Europe. Platitudes don’t have much firepower.

The world is failing to face an ever more impending environmental crisis. All over the world, the warnings are clear – floods, fires, droughts and famines driving people away from coasts, off the land in a flood of communities seeking a safer way of life. Again, Britain can do little alone. We need to cooperate, and where better to start than with those who share our concerns and values – back we go to Europe.

There is brave talk of turning a corner and of a plan working. How can we seriously believe we can significantly improve our economic situation after severing our connections with our largest and nearest? How do you build Silicon Valley here if, for years, you cut yourself off from European research and return to the table as a supplicant? Our companies must compete with American and Chinese companies, which are technologically underpinned by huge defence and space budgets.

What about our standing in the world? When did we last walk away from treaties we helped to write?

The Brexit case amounted to a viper’s nest of mantras. “We want our country back.” “They need us more than we need them.” “Bring back control.” “Get Brexit done.”

Eight years have passed. Brexiteers have had their hands on the tiller all that time. We had the extraordinary spectacle of a “minister for exiting the European Union” (which is almost as mad as having a “minister for common sense”).

Why is it so few new trade deals have been done? Why has there not been the promised bonfire of regulations? The answer is simple: there were no plans. It was a pack of lies.

So now the arguments have changed. “We never got the chance.” “We’ve never been allowed to do it.” “It’s the fault of the civil service, the blob, the BBC, shirkers, Covid.”

Every excuse, every scapegoat reveals two simple truths: Brexit was doomed from the start, and there never was a plan.

There never were any easy pickings from trade deals. Anyone who listens to Mr Trump should shudder at his protectionist tendencies. Be not surprised that Nigel Farage decided to duck the election here to support his transatlantic mentor: one short step from getting our country back to selling it down the river.

What we need is a mature reassessment of our relationships, within the UK, internationally, and just as vitally with Europe. We are Europeans. We are a European power. We must recover our place in the corridors of power of the one superpower in which we can play a major part – a role that allows our country to be its best self. The country we have lost.

That means taking on the hard right. We’ve done it before. Mosley and his Blackshirts. Enoch Powell’s monstrous parody of immigration. Now the emergence of Ukip and Reform. We are not unique in being burdened by these people. It’s happening across the world. Trump in America, Le Pen in France, and AfD in Germany among others.

These people stoke up fears based on the vilest human prejudices. They attach suspicion to those different to themselves. It’s called racism. History drips with the bloodshed to which it has led. Today, in country after country, people are tearing themselves apart, driven by the same irrational fears.

This country is better than that. We were the first country to abolish slavery. We were at the heart of the post-war settlement to stabilise the world through the United Nations. We helped to create the European systems of justice that became beacons of hope for people denied freedom in Russian-occupied Europe. We shared sovereignty in Europe after three wars in 75 years to ensure that it would never happen again.

We have a code of law in this country based on the equality of everyone of every colour class, and creed. That is the country of which I am proud, and I am ashamed that our political standards have so slipped that we are entering an election in which our political leaders are so frightened by the far right that they refuse to address the biggest challenge of our time – our relationship with Europe.

Lord Heseltine is a former deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom

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