How ironic it would be if the Tories were to fall apart again over Europe, just as David Cameron is entering the home straight for Number Ten. Almost as ironic as Tony Blair becoming president of the EU, just as Gordon Brown loses the next general election. Some people are just born lucky. But is David Cameron one of them?
Surely you say, the Tories couldn’t be so stupid to have a row about Lisbon. Surely they realise that this is no time for division; no time for a lapse into xenophobia, just when he voters were thinking the Conservatives had put all that anti-foreigner stuff behind them. Well, no one ever lost money by overestimating the stupidity of political parties. A majority of Tory supporters, according to the website Conservativehome, would be happy to leave the EU altogether. It’s not just the Lisbon Treaty, with its qualified majority voting and common foreign policy, they want to dump.
But their bottom line is a referendum on Lisbon and the are pressing David Cameron to give them what they want, even if - as everyone expects after the decisive Irish vote - the treaty is ratified by the two remaining doubters, Poland and the Czech Republic. Tory eurosceptics have already forced Cameron to join forces in the European parliament with right wing loonies like the Latvian For Freedom and Fatherland, which honours the Waffen SS. Europe has already eclipsed most of Cameron’s pre-conference policy proposals on elderly care, welfare reform and public spending.
What is it about Europe that really gets the Tory goat? The European Union is not a federal superstate, but a fairly loose confederation of sovereign nations who unite to meet specific economic objectives. It is exactly what David Cameron said he wanted the EU to be in his Andrew Marr interview yesterday:”an association of states not a country”. But suspicion of Europe, and of Germany in particular, is deeply rooted in the Tory psyche. We learned recently that, in 1989, Margaret Thatcher was so worried about the possibility of a united Germany dominating Europe that she asked the soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to stop civil rights demonstrators tearing down the Berlin Wall
This kind of paranoia clearly dies hard. We are dealing with something that isn’t entirely rational - it is about a pervasive sense of national insecurity in middle England - you just don’t get it up here -; a fear that somehow Britain will wake up one day and find that it is no longer run from Westminster but from Brussels. Many eurosceptics think we already are. Perhaps it is something to do with the legacy of British imperialism - an inability to accept the reality that Britain is now just another country in Europe and not a regional superpower.
But there is a new generation of voters today who are used to travelling around Europe, don’t believe that it is a threat to Britain, and really don’t like having to change their money at the border. Don’t the Tories listen to their pals in industry and commerce who are fed up with currency fluctuations that make a lottery of their investment decisions? Not even the Icelanders are anti-European nowadays. Only Britain remains fearful of contamination from the ‘continent’.
The EU has been astonishingly successful, not just in promoting prosperity but in promoting peaceful coexistence between nations. Tories scorn this idea, claiming that peace in Europe has nothing to do with Brussels and a lot to do with globalisation. True, the internationalisation of economic life has made the idea of war between France and Germany seem ridiculous. But look at Central and Eastern Europe and it isn’t, and the prospect of joining the EU has been a powerful and genuine force for peace. It is not inconceivable that there could have been war or communal unrest in the Baltic states, for example, had they not been so desperate to join the EU. The Balkans too are learning to live together since they too want to be part of the European club, and that means no ethnic cleansing, no funny business about borders and no goose-stepping military parades.
The EU has created an entirely new kind of international political entity: a country without a state. Speaking personally, I could do with a little more state - a more democratic one. The European parliament has very limited power. Under Lisbon, the first ever president will be chosen by the heads of the member states rather than by the people - which helps explain why Tony Blair is likely to win when he wouldn’t have had a cat in hell’s chance of winning an election because of Iraq.
The euro, introduced simultaneously in 16 states in January 2002 amid scorn from eurosceptics in Britain. It is now the second largest reserve currently in the world used daily by 327 million Europeans. We’ve just been through the worst financial crisis in sixty years, and the euro has thrived. The main reason why Ireland voted so decisively for the Lisbon Treaty was because the credit crunch has reminded them just reliant they are now on the European Central Bank .
Precisely! say the eurosceptics - the German bundesbankers have little Ireland under their heel, just as they always planned. Britain never, never, never will be a slave to the ECB. Really, there is no arguing with Conservative anti-Europeans, which is why David Cameron gave into them in 2005 and promised them a referendum on Lisbon. Without that pledge he would not be leader today, and they are now calling it in. On TV yesterday, Cameron sounded deeply unconvincing when he said that he didn’t want to talk about holding a referendum if Lisbon is ratified - which after Ireland it almost certainly will be - because it might “undermine or prejudice” the debates taking place in member states. But that’s precisely what the eurosceptics want him to do: provide a beacon to those few remaining free peoples of Europe. Take on the Brussels beast single-handed if necessary.
But the voters of Britain are watching very carefully. If the Manchester conference turns into a rabble of foam flecked anti-Europeans, dictating terms to Cameron, then the people might decide that, after all, the Tories aren’t quite ready for power. The next forty eight hours will be crucial.