William Hague’s speech to the Open Europe group last week is a masterpiece of confusion, of seeking to have it both ways. As such, perhaps, it is a good illustration of all the faults of the British attitude towards Europe. (You can read the speech here.)
Let me start, though, with a reminder of happier days when William Hague was Leader of the Opposition rather than merely shadow spokesman for foreign affairs. Remember his speech when he offered “let me take you to a foreign land”: this was in March 2001 when he was warning against another four years of Labour government and how its European policies would make Britain not longer British.
Now that four years have passed, has Britain disappeared? There are quite a lot of flags at the moment which suggest that it hasn’t. To be fair to William Hague, one of his fears was of joining the euro, which hasn’t come to pass, but even so, his judgement of the threat that Europe might pose to our national identity was wildly exaggerated.
And not only his judgement about the EU: here’s what he had to say about what Tony Blair as prime minister would do to our defence policy: “Britain’s forces have been committed to operations as part of the new European army outside Nato and to the dismay of the United States.” That’s not exactly what happened, is it?
So, that’s what William Hague said about Europe when it was up to him. Now, he has David Cameron as his boss: how much has changed?
“I am a firm believer that Britain’s place is in the European Union, a strong player in Europe, not at the margins.”
That’s how much has changed, and very welcome it is, too. But does he mean it?
Central to his vision of the EU is that it should be flexible: “Our aim must be to let each country find the level of integration it is most comfortable with in the European Union.” But in which case, how can we be sure that our country does not end up at the margins, if the other member states are taking decisions about how they cooperate among themselves. If one accepts, as William Hague appears to do, that Franco-German cooperation is a matter for the French and the Germans and not at all a matter for us, then we cannot control whether or not we end up at the margins of the EU. Or rather we can, but only by agreeing to conform to decisions that the French and the Germans have already taken. As I said, a good illustration of the faults of British European policy, even if William Hague sees them as virtues.
The same muddled thinking applies to the future of the constitutional treaty, too. He starts off very clear: “Reviving the Constitution would not only be undemocratic, it would be exactly the wrong thing to do.”
And he even seems to mean it, too. For example, he objects to extending majority voting and the powers of the European Parliament in the field of justice and home affairs. It would undermine sovereignty and he is not sure it would work. Furthermore, “This move would also, incidentally, be the implementation of part of the European Constitution by the back door and without the British people’s consent.”
However, he can’t stick to a principle. When it suits him, what was a fundamental principle of democracy – no to the constitutional treaty – becomes fungible. He wants national parliaments to take on a greater role in scrutinising European legislation on grounds of subsidiarity, and he wants the Council of Ministers to vote in public. But these provisions were in the constitutional treaty, which was rejected in referendums. Which part of the word No does William Hague not understand?
The same confusion afflicts his understanding of enlargement. Quite rightly, he lauds its success in encouraging reform and adaptation on the part of the new member states. To secure their democracies and their market economies, joining the EU and conforming to its disciplines was an essential step. But what’s this, when William Hague talks about the future of British membership of the EU? He wants to leave the common policies on agriculture and fisheries, and also the areas of social and employment policy. These are the areas where the disciplines of the EU should not apply. (We have already remarked on his objection to EU disciplines in justice and home affairs.)
So where would this approach have left the 10 recent new members, and where would it leave those still preparing to join? Should they not be allowed to apply the same opt-out principle to insurance or financial services, or any other area where Britain has a competitive advantage right now? If so, what happens to the benefits of EU discipline, if that discipline is only optional. If not, the argument is pure hypocrisy.
And it does not apply only to the accession of new member states. The Spanish have been leading objections to a single market in energy (championed by William Hague): can he criticise that while wanting to leave the fishing policy?
The fundamental problem to be faced is that a partnership implies that decision-making will be shared, that one partner cannot guarantee to have everything its own way. In the case of the European Union, no member state can have everything its own way. Overall, we benefit from membership – more things go right than go wrong – but the record is not perfect. There are some things that do not suit us and there will be some things that go wrong. If a pro-European position is to be convincing, it has to recognise this and put the case nevertheless. It requires more than merely finessing a basically anti-European position. William Hague still has some way to go.