For decades now, the European Union has been the elephant in the room of British politics. The mere mention of it is enough to send a shudder down the spine of most political commentators, and to get otherwise hardened politicians running for cover, muttering about an urgent meeting they had forgotten. After the bitter battles of the 1990s, it is perhaps understandable that many Westminster veterans are still somewhat shell-shocked. No-one enjoyed the in-fighting of the Major years, and no-one would want to repeat it. But is avoiding the issue really the solution? The EU is too big to simply ignore. It generates the majority of our legislation, and controls crucial policy areas such as farming, fisheries, immigration, environment, health and safety, financial services regulation and many more. As well as contributing £16.4 billion this year in direct payments from taxpayers into EU coffers, the impact of EU regulations and policies on the UK economy are estimated by the TaxPayers’ Alliance to cost almost £2,000 a year per person. At any time, anything that cost Britain £118 billion a year would be of huge significance, but in the middle of a recession and a deficit crisis it becomes even more important.
The EU also alters our global standingas a nation. Enthusiasts for the project would argue that it allows little Britain to have a share in a loud voice on the world stage. Sceptics such as myself, would instead point out that it projects a communal diplomatic message around the world that simply does not represent Britain’s opinions or best interests. Either way, with the Lisbon Treaty set to create the posts of EU President and Foreign Minister for the first time, the issue demands serious and close consideration. The failure of the vast majority of our politicians to discuss Europe has harmed the reputation of Westminster democracy. Leaving aside whether it is right or wrong to hand over so many powers to Brussels, the collective silence of the main political parties about the fact that such a handover has taken place is hugely irresponsible.
Growing numbers of people feel that it makes little difference how they vote – and they are right. Think of all the millions who wrote to their MPs urging them to Make Poverty History. Most of them received a reply expressing agreement and promising that their representative in Parliament would work to change our trade policy to help the world’s poor.
Had MPs been honest, though, they would have instructed their constituents to write instead to the EU Trade Commissioner, who is in almost total control of our trade policy. Indeed, it is the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy that requires the protectionist barriers which so harm sub-Saharan Africa. By promising to change something which they do not control, MPs misled their constituents and added another bundle of fuel to the growing bonfire of disillusionment with Parliament. It is crucial that there is an open debate about all aspects of the EU’s work – the cost, the democratic deficit, the erosion of our international standing and much more. While our politicians may be terrified of the subject, the public most certainly are not. Obscure vetoes, dusty treaties and dustier bureaucrats may not excite them, but the real life impact of European policies most certainly does. Some of the most controversial issues on the doorstep – fortnightly bin collections, post office closures, climate change, banking rules – fall within Brussels’ remit. All the opinion polling shows that the people are itching to have their say about Europe. Of course, the majority are sceptical, but people on both sides of the debate must deplore the fact that our national discourse has become so stunted. It is staggering to consider that you now have to be 52 years old to have ever had a vote on the European project. If you ignore an elephant in the room for too long, it will trample on you. The Irish have had a chance to debate it twice – now, in Oxford, we will begin our own debate in earnest.
Ruth Lea will be speaking in favour of the motion This House Believes That There Is Life After Brussels at the Oxford Union on Tuesday 20th October, from 8.30pm.