By David Clark, a former Labour government adviser (THE GUARDIAN, 29/05/07):
AAmong the very first issues Gordon Brown will be forced to address as prime minister is Europe, and in particular plans to salvage parts of the ill-fated European constitution in the form of a new mini-treaty. He may even be pressed to take a firm stance before he enters Downing Street if German efforts to get agreement at next month’s EU summit succeed. His reaction will set the tone for his Europe policy and, crucially, define his relationship with Angela Merkel and the other new boy, Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom support a new treaty. Will Brown join a gang of three or will he prefer to adopt the role of Euro-outsider?
In recent years, Brown has cultivated a reputation as something of a Eurosceptic. But this does not necessarily represent a position of settled conviction as opposed to one of political calculation. Until the mid-1990s he was considered one of the more pro-European voices in the Labour leadership, playing a key role in its decision to support economic and monetary union. It was only after he reached the Treasury that he became known as the Hammer of Brussels, castigating the rest of Europe for its economic underperformance and saying no to the euro. It is the main reason elements of the rightwing media still give him the benefit of the doubt.
Ed Balls, the man credited with Brown’s “Eurorealist” switch, has given a good indication of what to expect in a recent pamphlet for the Centre for European Reform. In it he calls for a “hard-headed pro-Europeanism” in which Britain cooperates more closely in areas of shared European concern, but says no to proposals deemed contrary to the national interest. He also expresses a preference for intergovernmental cooperation over deeper political integration and a stronger role for Brussels. According to this view, the lack of public support in the Dutch and French referendums shows that the time for great integrationist leaps is over.
Balls is right about the depth of Europe’s political crisis. Pro-Europeans can quibble about where responsibility for this lies, but support for the European Union is at a low ebb and any new grand project on the scale of monetary union or the single market is unlikely to succeed in current conditions. The immediate task is a more prosaic one of rebuilding support for the idea that Europe can help to improve the lives of its citizens. This calls for an emphasis on practical results in areas of public concern. Balls singles out energy and the environment, where the case for action at a European level is clear and undeniable.
This at least provides the basis for a positive vision of what a Brown government hopes to achieve in Europe that can command broad support, here and on the continent. What is missing is a real sense that the Brownites understand the difficulties in balancing hard-headedness with pro-Europeanism. There is no shame in emphasising the national interest. All European governments do, but the sensible ones avoid becoming hostage to the idea that they can get their own way all of the time.
Successful European diplomacy involves patient alliance building and complex deals across policy areas in which support in one is secured by being flexible in others. Sometimes this means accepting decisions that in isolation fail a strict national interest test, but that contribute to a greater gain. This can be a hard lesson to learn. It is one thing to invoke the national interest and scoop up Eurosceptic plaudits when the consequences are limited to meetings of European finance ministers. But the Brownites are about to assume responsibility for the whole package and the rules of the game are set to change in ways that might surprise them.
The danger of isolation if Brown is too heavy-handed in his approach to Europe is therefore very real. Veto politics is fine for those with an exclusively negative agenda, but the priorities set out in the Balls pamphlet are ambitious and positive. In addition to stronger action on energy and the environment, they include further economic liberalisation and reform of the EU budget. To succeed, a Brown government will need to build up its political capital, not squander it by playing the national interest card too cheaply or too often.
Another problem with the Brownite approach is its apparent emphasis on intergovernmentalism. To be fair, it is a common fallacy of the British political classes that Europe’s problem is one of centralisation and that the solution is to strengthen the role of member states. The bits of the EU that work – the single market, environmental protection, trade negotiations – are the areas in which supranationalism is most advanced, decisions are taken by majority vote, the commission has a strong role and the European court of justice can enforce the rules. Think of the bits that don’t work – foreign policy, the Lisbon economic reform agenda and, yes, budget reform – and you will find the dead hand of intergovernmentalism every time.
It is next to impossible to reach agreements that rise above the lowest common denominator when there are 27 vetoes around the table. That doesn’t mean that we should accept supranationalism across the board. There are areas of policy-making so sensitive that the inefficiencies of intergovernmentalism can be deemed a price worth paying – defence is the most obvious example. But it is pointless and counterproductive to deny that this sovereignty/efficiency trade-off exists. Broader public awareness is a must if the British debate about Europe is to become more honest and positive.
The Brownites suggest that the idea of supranational political integration has been overtaken by history and is now old hat. Yet every significant global trend would seem to indicate the opposite. Businesses and markets increasingly operate without regard to borders or national hierarchies. So, unfortunately, do criminals and terrorists. Our climate is the ultimate supranational phenomenon, and it is changing in ways national governments cannot control. In this fast-changing and interdependent world is it not ponderous old intergovernmentalism that looks like the relic of a bygone era?
These are some of the hard truths the Brownites are about to grapple with. They need to be wary of talking themselves into a classic Eurosceptic trap by setting a false national interest test they can only fail. A more sensible long-term strategy would be to try in a more concerted way to change the terms of the debate and inject a greater dose of realism into British thinking about Europe.