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EU politics: missing the detail

Richard North, 02/01/2013  


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At least I am not alone in suggesting that the most important thing on the political agenda at the moment is David Cameron's forthcoming "Europe" speech – not least for the fact that it may well define the fate of the Conservatives at the next election.

Belatedly, Simon Jenkins is joining the fray with a flowery contribution which boils down to the simple premises that: "There is no alternative to some renegotiation of Britain's relations with the rest of the EU".

Jenkins gets to his lofty position after wishing a plague on everyone's house, from the federalists to the likes of UKIP, for which he has very little time. Britain will never "leave Europe", he says, any more than it did in the times of Marlborough, Pitt and Churchill. The only question is the oldest in the history book: how best can Britain live in political and commercial harmony with other European states? 

That much we would agree with, and have been saying for a long time that the essential requirement is for us to redefine our relationships with the EU member states. But, if we can't leave "Europe", we can leave the European Union, and it is this that is the centrepiece of the argument.

Effectively, what we are saying – and have been for time immemorial – is that it is not, and never has been, necessary to order our relationships with European states by being a member of the system of government known as the European Union.

And there, Jenkins does not so much fall off the rails so much as go screaming round the bend at top speed and, without slackening an iota, he smashes into the buffers of terminological inexactitude. Not once in his thousand-word piece does he use the phrase "European Union".

One can thus admire his beautifully crafted English, and his profound historical knowledge, except that his essay is like a fine porcelain teapot, with no spout and no handle. One thus has to ask: "what is it for"?

The debate, he says, "is at last real, and thus exciting". But, he says, "calls for a referendum on 'Britain in or out' are absurd". It would, he says, produce closure just when openness is most welcome. "A means must be found to sustain free and fair trade in Europe as a whole without so infringing national sovereignty that electorates will not stand for it".

And it is that which has Jenkins smashing into the buffers. The debate "requires the tribes to talk, not shout", he says - by which means he decides that there is no alternative to some renegotiation of Britain's relations with the rest of the EU. He then adds:
The eurozone demands it. The leakage of billions of euros into European tax havens must be stopped. The Brussels thesis that corruption is not a single market issue must be punctured. Energy resources must be shared. This is not a matter of idiot metaphors about "premier league and fast tracks". It is a simple necessity.
Had Mr Jenkins dwelt on a few plain words, he would known he was talking nonsense. Calls for an "in-out" referendum are not at all "absurd" if one is talking about getting out of the European Union rather than leaving "Europe". 

Furthermore, Mr Jenkins has not addressed the issue of Article 50, by which the UK would have to notify the Council of its intention to leave before negotiations could start. Yet through this article is the best way of redefining our relationships with the EU member states, so remaining engaged with "Europe".

If you start off with the wrong premise, though,your conclusions most likely will be faulty. And so it is with poor Mr Jenkins. He tells us: "Every sensible person accepts that Britain needs a new deal with the other states of Europe, one that leaves the words 'in and out' to fools".

Fools they might be to believe they can win an in-out referendum at this juncture, but that is any story. But the fact is that before we can fully engage with "Europe", we need to leave the European Union.

Then to use Mr Jenkins's precise words: "Everything is in the detail. Only when we see that detail can the conversation begin". The trouble is, he doesn't do detail – and neither do most of his media colleagues. And that is why, for all their fine worlds and clever language, they so often get it wrong.

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