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“Don’t speak of Europe in front of the children”. That was the message coming from Lib Dem minister Michael Moore on Monday. Speaking to a fringe meeting organised by Business for New Europe – a pro-EU business lobby group – he said that Europe was facing a crisis but moving towards fiscal integration. As such it was important to ensure “that in Britain, we minimise the noises off so nobody sees this as an opportunity to widen the scope of the debate”. Otherwise, he gravely warned, people “might see this as a way of getting in there to get a debate going over powers that might come back to the UK.” Really fellows, you mustn’t speak about Europe in front of the little people.
Ever since the European Constitution had to be repackaged as the Lisbon Treaty, it has been clear that popular referenda weren’t much good for the European project. Now it seems that even the threat of a public debate is too much for the Euro-enthusiasts to bear.
Yet if there was ever a moment that was apt for a wide ranging public debate about Europe and Britain’s place in it, then it is now. The Euro has played a central role in deepening and prolonging the financial and economic crises which now threaten its existence. Plans for “fiscal integration” and a European ministry of Finance may bring about the biggest dimunition of democratic power in Europe since the 1930s. And opinion polls consistently show that the majority of people in Britain are unhappy with being partially governed from Brussels.
In Michael Moore’s eyes, those politiicans who are now speaking up for a referendum have betrayed a political class that has become well practised in marginalising popular opinion on Europe. In the federalist lexicon, the concept of “political leadership” has become a sad parody of what it ought to mean. It has come to refer not to the ability to win mass support for one’s ideas, but rtather the ability to ignore the expressed opinions of the the demos. Meanwhile popular opposition is represented either as the mutterings of Little Englanders, or as some kind of psycological malady. As the EU’s president, Hermann Van Rompuy, put it, “The biggest enemy of Europe today is fear. Fear leads to egoism, egoism leads to nationalism, and nationalism leads to war”. Right then.
In the same meeting Baroness Shirley Williams rose to express her anger that the government had pushed through a law requiring a referendum before any more major powers were given to Brussels. This, she said, might prevent Britain from working with the other major European powers to “bring about the major reform that is needed”. Heaven forbid that the ability of our governing class to co-operate with their european counterparts be compromised the need to consult the people!
One can quite see why the serial democracy evader – Baroness Williams has lingered in the lords ever since she lost her commons seat in 1983 – might be troubled by such a turn of events. But the principle behind the referendum law is sound – namely that powers we lend to parliament every five years are not theirs to give away. Now, however, it is time to begin applying that principle retrospectively.
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