THE BLOG

Britain Enraged But Not Engaged

30/12/2014 11:37 GMT | Updated 28/02/2015 10:59 GMT

The Liberal Democrats brought stability of government when they formed the coalition with the Conservatives in May 2010, and it will be their joint management of the British economy through the crisis that will dominate this May's election campaign. In that record there are undoubted strengths (moderate growth in jobs) as well as weaknesses (worsening balance of payments). For many electors on 7 May, it will be the future of the country's public services that determines their verdict on the coalition.

Few voters and no political party will wish to dwell on foreign affairs: a polite veil will be drawn over the UK's costly military defeat in Afghanistan. The big issue of 'Europe' will enrage rather than engage the electorate. Nobody, certainly not the opposition Labour party, will ask why the coalition's European policy has been a complete disaster.

The EU played very little part in the original coalition pact. Both parties hoped that the UK was immunised from the crisis clobbering the eurozone. Both had been stung by betraying ill-judged promises to offer a referendum on Labour's Treaty of Lisbon which had just come into force (and was assumed to take years to bed down). Besides, even if Europe as an issue was more divisive for the Tory party, it confused even the habitually 'pro-European' Lib Dems. The best European in the cabinet turned out to be Ken Clarke, a Tory heavy-weight. One fatal commitment was made in the coalition negotiations, however: to legislate for a referendum whenever the EU treaties were to be changed in the future.

Tinkering with Britain's fragile constitution is easy enough: the EU Act of July 2011 was opposed only by a smattering of bold, mostly elderly members of the powerless House of Lords. The UK's EU partners were not consulted. But the thing is now entrenched. Whenever the EU moves to revise its constitutional order, the hapless British people will be asked for their consent. Britain, of course, is not the only EU state with a weak national parliament and spineless political parties to take refuge in populism on European matters. But it is the EU state which is the most eurosceptic and the least inclined to agree to a deepening of European integration. As all states have to agree on each and any treaty amendment, the inevitability of a referendum in Britain raises doubts about whether the EU will ever be able to change its treaties again.

Given the magnitude of the political consequences of the EU Act, one might have expected a classy debate in Britain about the future of its European policy. Not a bit of it. One party, UKIP, is ideologically committed to leaving the EU for who knows where or what. The Tories' nationalist wing, not satisfied with the EU Act, forced prime minister David Cameron in January 2013 to promise to renegotiate the UK's terms of EU membership and then hold a referendum. Last May, the still dissatisfied europhobes extracted from him a pledge, if still prime minister, to hold an 'In/Out' referendum in 2017 regardless of the progress or outcome of any renegotiation. As such a referendum will be bound to blow the Tory Party asunder for years to come, the more intelligent younger Tory must be hoping that Cameron will soon no longer be prime minister.

What of the others? Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to stay in the EU come what may but have no plans to contribute to making Europe more united. Indeed, they have no contingency prospectus for the UK when the EU moves, as it surely will, towards federal union. Although both would cooperate more with the EU's justice policies, neither centre-left party advocates joining the EU's passport-free Schengen Agreement. Neither argues that the Tories were wrong to stand aside from the eurozone's moves towards banking union still less are they prepared to commit to reconsidering sterling's membership of the euro even 'when the time is ripe'. The British Greens are much more eurosceptic, if no less quirky, than their mainland counterparts. And Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalists seek to compound London's evident difficulties in coping with the centripetal forces of Brussels by accentuating the centrifugal forces within the United Kingdom.

Despite appearances, therefore, there are no serious European politics in Britain. The Financial Times apart, only two London daily newspapers (Guardian and Daily Telegraph) retain a full-time reporter in Brussels. The BBC is the faithful poodle of the British Establishment and neglectful of EU news. The City of London simply hopes for better days. The 'pro-European' movement in Britain concentrates on boasting how influential the UK is in EU affairs (sic). British federalists, who have over the years given so much to Europe and the wider world, are a dying breed.

So it would be foolish to think that the British general election is going to clarify things European one way or the other. During the campaign, there will be much bleating about 'EU reform' but no specifics. If David Cameron gets back to No 10, he will at once have to firm up on his efforts to detach the UK further from the mainstream of European politics. If David Miliband becomes prime minister, he will be doing so because the UKIP surge has dashed the Conservatives. And what Miliband as prime minister would then do when faced with the EU's agenda for fiscal and political union is anybody's guess (including his). Either leader will discover it is not he who controls the EU's agenda.

In fact, it is the imminent election in Greece that will determine where the eurocrisis goes next. A restructuring of Greek debt cannot long be avoided. The Lisbon treaty creaks at the edges, and constitutional courts are twitchy. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, backed by a firm majority in the European Parliament, is growing impatient. When EU reform comes it is likely to be radical and comprehensive. Unless the Brits get to be less careless, they will be utterly confounded.

Happy New Year.