Richard North, 05/07/2012  

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In what amounts to a rehearsal of the campaign we might expect when a referendum gets up and running, the Guardian lets loose its columnist Timothy Garton Ash, one of the core europhiles who was so voluble when Blair was setting us up to join the euro.

He joins the throng of "delayers", telling us "Britain needs a vote on Europe – but not now", offering a pitch that is not without logic. He asserts that the eurozone must first resolve what the EU is going to be, and – he adds – what Scotland what Britain will be.

The man is unequivocal suggesting that all Britain's political parties should make a commitment in their general election manifestos to hold a referendum on Britain's EU membership during the lifetime of the next parliament. And that referendum, he says, should ask a plain question: do you want Britain to stay in the EU? Then, his case starts to unravel.

This egregious europhile is another of those who believes that the government will be able to negotiate a "relationship" with the EU, following which an "in/out" referendum becomes a "defining moment", without which we will carry on "mugwumping" for ever more.

But, says Garton Ash, it is "ridiculous to spend much time on the subject now". We still don't know if and how the eurozone will be saved, and hence what this Europe will be.

If the eurozone collapses, all bets are off, he says, but if the eurozone is saved, it will only be by "moving forward" to add major elements of a banking, fiscal and therefore necessarily political union. That, he adds, will change the whole nature of the EU.

In his scenario, there are then two sets of negotiations, one between the eurozone ins and outs, and then one between the UK and the EU but, to start that renegotiation now, as Liam Fox and many Conservative backbenchers are demanding, "would be the height of folly".

Here, Garton Ash is on safer ground. He paints a satirical account of such negotiations:
Your neighbour's house, a ramshackle Second Empire-style mansion, is in flames. The German housewife, whom we suspect wears the trousers, the voluble French husband, the resident Italian maestro, the Spanish … OK, that's enough ethnic stereotyping … are running around with buckets and hoses trying to put out the fire.

At this critical moment, David Cameron strolls over from the solid stockbroker Tudor house next door and says: "I say, you chaps, could we just have a word about moving the garden fence? And cutting back that false acacia of yours? It's dropping leaves into one's swimming pool".

Imagine the response. Merde would be the mildest. Especially since good neighbour Cameron has already been shouting helpful advice from his balcony: "Come on, you chaps, look sharp there and put your backs into it. What you need is a fiscal union. Angela will pay. Sorry we can't contribute a penny ourselves to your Emergency Fire Smothering Fund (EFSF), but we're British, you know."
One need not trouble further with his convolutions, other than to say that he, The Great Man, concludes by complaining that the British debate about Europe goes around the same old issues, year in, year out, like one of those old 78rpm gramophone records with the needle stuck in a [eurosceptic] groove.

He is right about the debate being stuck, but lacks self awareness. Both sides are locked into their respective grooves, both failing to understand the new reality. The first is that, if the EU goes ahead with a new treaty, there is no way that the UK can join the euro core. That necessarily confines us to a second tier.

Then, post-Lisbon, the UK has no power to force negotiations as long as it remains within the EU. Article 48 saw to that. Garton Ash, and many more like him, need to read the treaty which they so favoured. Then, perhaps, we can forget the polemics and get down to business.

There is a debate to be had, and the real one hasn't even started.


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