As the issue of “Europe” continued to swirl daily through the headlines, two remarkable speeches last week illustrated one of the crucial problems with this “debate”. This is that the labyrinthine workings of the EU are so complicated that few people can really begin to understand them.
The Pope’s address to the European Parliament seemed devastatingly critical. He spoke of how “the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction, only to be replaced by the bureaucratic technicalities of its institutions”. He described it as looking “elderly and haggard” in “a world which frequently regards it with aloofness, mistrust and even, at times, suspicion”. He observed how it had lost the trust of its citizens, who see it too often as “downright harmful”.
Reading the Pope’s speech in full, however, he doesn’t seem to have grasped the EU’s real nature at all: in particular, why the core principles on which it was set up were inevitably destined to bring it to its present dismal pass. Some passages might have been written by the Commission itself, as when he proclaimed “the readiness of the Holy See” to “engage in meaningful, open and transparent dialogue with the institutions of the EU”.
Even less understanding was shown in the generally dismissive media response to that other speech last week, in which Owen Paterson MP became our first serious politician to explain the only practical strategy whereby we could achieve what most British people, including David Cameron, say they want. That is, a wholly new relationship with the EU, allowing us to continue trading freely in the single market – but without being sucked ever deeper into the toils of its increasingly oppressive and unworkable political superstructure.
The ideas Mr Paterson put forward, whereby Britain could be liberated to become again a more independent and self-respecting nation (see his article on the facing page), would have been familiar to readers of this column. Above all, he has grasped the nature of the revolution whereby ever more of the laws passed down to us by Brussels now originate from those higher global bodies on which we could join Norway, which sits on them in its own right as an independent country, and have far more influence in shaping the rules than we do now.
What was so obvious in the media response to Paterson’s speech was how out of their depth were almost all those interviewers who tried to make light of it. Particularly noticeable was how, as soon as he tried to talk about this dramatic change in the way international rules are made, Radio 4’s Martha Kearney and Newsnight’s Evan Davis at once tried impatiently to talk over him. It was clearly something they couldn’t get their little heads round at all. Davis in particular, looking ever more like Gollum, twice brushed it aside as “very interesting”, as he tried quickly to move on to sexier questions, such as whether Paterson was criticising Cameron and why didn’t he join Ukip?
The truth is that, if ever we are to have a grown-up, informed debate on these issues, Paterson’s position can be the only realistic starting point. But both journalists and his fellow politicians have got an awful lot of catching up to do.
Christopher Booker, an English journalist and author.