Several years ago I was covering a tennis tournament in Germany for BBC Radio when I was asked to escort a German MEP to the commentary box. He was taking part in a discussion on Radio 4, and as he was having a day at the tennis, they wanted him to be on the quality broadcast line rather than a crackly phone line.
Chatting to this corpulent gentleman as I escorted him breathlessly up three flights of stairs, I was struck by how little we had in common. He represented the conservative CDU party, and while I’m a great believer that there’s much that unites people of different parties, his view of the world seemed very different to mine.
So I was somewhat taken aback when I saw his face on page 2 of The Independent last week, writing a comment column about David Cameron’s pledge to renegotiate the Lisbon Treaty. What struck me as he laid into Cameron’s pledge was that I totally agreed with him.
To quote from the piece, the MEP (Elmar Brök) said, “The Conservative leader’s new warning that he will seek to ‘repatriate’ powers from Brussels to London is no more realistic than the referendum he has just given up on ... I do not see any chance of passing even the very first step of such a process.”
And he added, “The EU will, as a result [of the Lisbon treaty], be more democratic, more capable of acting and more transparent, because the treaty will strengthen the principle of subsidiarity as well as the role of national parliaments. This is the biggest paradox of Mr Cameron’s stance: the Lisbon treaty will actually massively strengthen the role of Westminster.”
Quite apart from showing how isolated David Cameron is across Europe, even from conservative opinion, this shows how the Conservatives in this country are using Europe to play a game, not to offer a vision of good governance. There are many things we don’t like, but those we cannot change we have to accept and work within the defined limits, not duck out of as if throwing our toys out of the pram is somehow OK.
The fact is that the Conservative leadership is as pro-Europe as we Liberal Democrats are, but it doesn’t dare say this in public for fear of alienating dyed-in-the-wood Tories who hanker after a bygone age of an isolated but powerful England. If the Conservatives want to represent business interests, they have to be largely pro-Europe, but if they come clean about this, they risk hacking off the traditionalists.
To be brutally honest, there is very little difference between the three mainstream parties on Europe. All three are in favour of the EU, but keeping a watchful eye over the development of the UK’s right of influence. They just sell this same policy to different ‘voter markets’. While we are enthusiastic but with reservations, the Tories are sceptical but with reluctant involvement, and express their scepticism by teaming up with neo-Nazis in the European Parliament.
If people really don’t want Britain to be in the EU, they should be voting Ukip. Ukip’s arguments are fatuously simplistic and have little basis in fact, but at least the party is clear that it would take Britain out of the EU. Therefore, any voter for whom Europe is a big issue should go either for the Lib Dems or Ukip – not the Conservatives, for whom Europe is one big and dangerous fudge.