Friday, 23 April 2010

Leaders' stale old debate on the EU

The part of last night's second TV debate between the party leaders devoted to discussing the European Union proved mostly a stale rehash of the same old inaccurate lines - particularly from Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown.

As ever, they moved to shut down any focussed debate about the realities of the EU with a combination of smearing David Cameron's choice of political allies and of asserting that legitimate questions about the extent of the EU's powers indicated a wish not even to work with other European countries at all.

As if the only possible form of co-operation between countries is an EU-style transfer of political decisions to unaccountable, central institutions.

It's a low grade tactic that's deployed time and again by the EU lobby to subvert an honest debate about the true goals of the EU and the nature of Britain's relationship with it.

Everyone agrees with the need for co-operation between countries on the issues that affect us all. But the EU is entirely about political integration and the real debate is about how far it has gone, whether centralised decisions in EU institutions is a practical or democratic way to govern a group of very diverse countries, and what should be done about this problem.

But neither Clegg nor Brown want to engage in that debate because they know their unswerving ideological support for giving the EU ever more powers at the expense of our democratic national institutions is both unjustifiable and completely out of step with public opinion.

Why else would the pair of them have expended so much political energy wriggling out of promises made at the last election to give people a referendum on the EU Constitution / Lisbon Treaty if not to prevent the public blocking their plans? They knew we would, given the chance.

From their point of view, any debate about the EU must be quickly diverted and frustrated by the setting up of false dichotomies, distractions and plain old name-calling.

Brown's 'Big Lie'

Typifying this approach, Gordon Brown resorted to his favourite Big Lie on the issue, asserting that 3 million jobs depend on Britain's 'membership of the EU'.

In reality, the 3 million jobs figure comes from a National Institute for Economic and Social Research study into the impact of UK-EU trade.

But given that trade with European countries isn't dependent solely on EU membership, and trade would clearly not halt if we changed our relationship with the EU, it is not honest to suggest as Brown did that 3 million jobs would be at risk.

Clegg chimed in with the idea that you can only change the rules of clubs you're a member of by 'getting stuck in'.

But the truth is neither he nor Brown intend to 'get stuck in' at all, as their behaviour over the Lisbon Treaty showed.
If Brown truly tried to change the EU's rules or goals during the negotiations that resulted in the EU Constitution / Lisbon Treaty, you wouldn't notice it from the long list of extra EU powers to which he agreed.

Lib Dem dishonesty

Clegg also tried to distract from how he broke his promise made at the last election to support a referendum on the EU Constitution / Lisbon Treaty, by saying he would give people a say on the 'real question' - whether we should be 'in or out' of the EU.

However a glance at the Lib Dem manifesto confirms that the pledge is only for an in or out referendum "the next time the British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between Britain and the EU".

Lib Dem 'small print' that provokes several further questions about the pledge's value.

First, what is a "fundamental change" if the EU Constitution / Lisbon Treaty wasn't and, given how the Lib Dems wriggled out of their last EU referendum promise on the grounds that even the EU Constitution / Lisbon Treaty did not present such a change, what's the betting they will wriggle out of this new referendum pledge by claiming exactly the same about the next EU treaty?

Second, why is it necessary to wait until the next treaty change is proposed before holding this 'in or out' referendum? In practice, we could terminate our EU relationship at any time we choose. So might this stipulation be there because, having battled for eight years against French, Dutch and Irish public opposition to get the EU Constitution / Lisbon Treaty ratified, there's little prospect of another EU treaty for many years to come. And, consequently, such a stipulation means little prospect of the Lib Dems having to deliver such a referendum?

Far from Clegg's glib TV comments, reading the small print of the new Lib Dem referendum promise reveals all. They won't pledge to hold that 'in / out' referendum immediately, because they clearly still want to avoid giving people any say on the EU at all.

Cameron's contribution

The responses of both Clegg and Brown to questions on the EU issue during the TV debate can each respectively be described in one word: dishonest and distraction.

In contrast, David Cameron's recognition that powers should not be transferred to the EU without people being asked directly, and his proposals to get powers back from the EU, have merit as a start to securing the change we need.

But he clearly wasn't able to resist a bit of stale mantra-reciting of his own.

A disappointment from among his own comments was the re-emergence of the lame old Tory 'In Europe, not run by Europe' line. It's a ridiculous idea because, as anyone with even the slightest knowledge of the way the EU works will know, you can't be in the EU but not run by the EU.

Steadily taking over the running its member states, in the place of national governments, is the EU's fundamental mission and goal.

Prize, however, for most ridiculous line of the night must still go to Nick Clegg, who probably thought he was being clever in defending the EU by saying that "the weather doesn't stop at the cliffs of Dover".

In fact, it rebounded on him quite badly by sounding so narrow-minded. Of course, the weather doesn't stop at the Polish border or Mediterranean coast either.

Final judgement

What was clear overall was that only one leader on the TV stage - David Cameron - was criticising the extent of the EU's powers and proposing to seek some reversal of that situation.

Whereas both Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown were defending the undemocratic status quo and showed no indication they wouldn't sign even more powers over to the EU given the chance in office.

But the most fundamental problem with the TV event was the short amount of time devoted to debating an organisation that membership of which will next year alone cost Britain £7.6 billion (net), that even so hasn't been able to get its accounts fully approved by auditors for 14 years in a row, and which according to German government estimates may now be behind as many as 80% of our new laws.

Is that all the high profile time that such an important issue gets during this election campaign, and how can its many and full implications possibly be explored in such a short period of discussion?

In fact, the EU problem deserves a 90 minute leaders' debate all of its own.

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