2005-04-17 00:00:00 This week the Booker column
looks at "the biggest issue of all" that can't be mentioned in the general election, that colossal "elephant in the room", the European Union.
Booker opens his column pointing out that the real reason for the collapse of the Rover-Shanghai deal was the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations. These enact EU directives which would have imposed on the Chinese greater obligations towards redundant employees than they could and would accept.
Even the BBC now asks why "Europe" has become the great unmentionable issue in this suffocating election - but it is missing at least half the point. It is true that all parties seem eager to keep the EU out of view (Tory candidates, for instance, were startled last week to be issued with a set of focus-group-tested mantras on this topic and warned not to vary from them by an iota).
The politicians' stock explanation is that discussion of "Europe" should be deferred until the referendum on the European constitution in a year's time. This could prove to be more than just a convenient excuse: with the voters of France and Holland seemingly set to kick the constitution into the long grass, we may find ourselves denied any debate on this issue at all.
There is, however, a more serious respect in which "Europe" has become the black hole in this election. The discussion of many vitally important issues is now avoided because they are in fact no longer the responsibility of our Westminster Parliament. When even the Cabinet Office website admits that half our laws are now made in Brussels, this means that a whole range of policy areas which would once have been at the centre of election debate are off the agenda.
Booker then goes on to offer a list of nine key issues which have effectively been excluded from discussion, because the views of British voters are no longer relevant to how they are handled.1. The Coming Energy Crisis
Within a few years, with the rundown of North Sea gas and our ageing nuclear power stations (currently providing nearly a quarter of our electricity), we face the prospect of a major energy crisis, which in the electronic age would be far more devastating to economic life than Heath's "three day week" in the 1970s.
Yet no party is prepared to argue the unworkability of an EU-agreed energy policy which pledges that, within 15 years, we will derive 20 per cent of our energy from "renewables", mainly wind. To achieve this - which would entail building 20,000 turbines - is out of the question. No party dares question the EU-Kyoto orthodoxy by pointing out that wind energy is hopelessly unreliable and uneconomical, and that without a new generation of nuclear power stations a crisis is inevitable.2. The Waste Crisis
Our waste disposal policy is in chaos thanks to the insane complexity of EU waste rules and its diktat that we must replace most of our landfill sites with giant incinerators. This is not going to happen. Thanks to the EU's bizarre definitions of "waste", Britain is prohibiting all sorts of imaginative recycling systems, such as the use of sewage pellets to fuel power stations.
Labour ministers' slavish attempts to comply with ill-drafted EU law are proving increasingly self-defeating: eg the current nationwide wave of fly-tipping, or the fiasco of the EU's ban on burying "animal by-products", from fallen farm stock to old supermarket chicken tikka. Yet neither of the other parties dares question this shambles because they accept the EU's right to dictate waste policy.3. The Defence Crisis
The Armed Forces face an unprecedented crisis in the provision of their materiel - their planes, ships and vehicles - which is intimately connected to the demands of EU defence integration. The recent award of the Army's biggest ever truck order to a German firm rather than an Anglo-American consortium was just the latest instance of how the politics of EU integration are now overriding military considerations.
The Tories promise to spend more on defence and to reverse the abolition of old regiments. But neither pledge makes sense without addressing the central issue of whether our armed forces should be reorganised and re-equipped according to the needs of EU defence policy.4. Immigration and Asylum Rules
In January when Michael Howard first proposed a limit on immigration, he was caught out when Brussels officials explained he had no powers to do so. The Labour Government had signed up to directives which prevent Britain deciding its own immigration and asylum policy.
Mr Howard responded that he would repatriate those powers. But although he has continued to make immigration a central election issue, he has carefully avoided getting drawn into further discussion of how he could implement a policy which would be viewed by Brussels and his EU partners as illegal.5. Road Safety and Traffic Control
Few issues have become more contentious than speed cameras and congestion charges. Even Labour's manifesto admits they will consider a new system for charging road-users. What no party explains is that Brussels now plans to take control of all "road use policy" across the EU, through its proposed Road Safety Agency, including speed limits. Furthermore, among the declared intentions of its Galileo satellite system is a plan for electronic charging for road use of EU roads, including congestion charges; and satellite-controlled automatic "speed limiters", making it impossible for drivers to break the limit even if they want to.6. Overseas Aid
Tony Blair makes play with his plans to more than double Britain's overseas aid spending to £6.5 billion a year. What he doesn't highlight is the frustration of his ministerial colleagues at the extent to which UK aid priorities are now dictated by the EU, and how inefficiently and corruptly much of it is administered.
A junior aid minister, Gareth Thomas, recently complained at the way EU aid is weighted towards Mediterranean countries, in the hope of deterring emigration - so that Egypt, for example, receives 100 times more per head than the much poorer Bangladesh. The Tories say they would "repatriate" some aid policy, but do not explain how they would do this in face of unanimous opposition from Brussels and EU partners.7. Foreign Policy
Because it is obscured by headline exceptions such as Iraq, few people, even politicians, are aware how much we must now comply with the EU's common foreign policy. In 28 policy areas we have already handed over our right to decide our own policy, which is one reason why the British Government has appeared to take such a pusillanimous line over such issues as the tyranny of Mugabe, Botswana's persecution of the Kalahari Bushmen and appeasement of the mullahs in Iran.8. Competition and State Aid Rules
When, with Government support, Peugeot planned a car plant at Coventry which would have contributed more to the Midlands economy than Rover, the deal was scuppered because it took too long for Brussels to approve it under EU "state aid rules". Although the rules are widely flouted by France, Germany, Italy and Spain, Britain is punctilious in its efforts not to use subsidies in a way which might "distort competition". This has also resulted in abandoning such socially desirable policies as the Public and Private Partnerships which helped to clean up scores of former industrial sites and put them to beneficial use.9. The Growing Deadweight of EU Regulation
When one West Country MP was recently approached by a constituent asking why, as a lorry driver, he was forced by the EU's working time rules to take a 20 per cent cut in wages, the MP had to point out that there was nothing any British politician could do about it.
EU regulations are regularly put at the top of the list by business organisations, from the CBI to the British Chambers of Commerce, as by far the biggest single factor undermining the efficiency and competitiveness of British industry. Despite weak noises from the Tories, no British politician has any practical idea as to how to curb this regulatory blizzard, which is why it is not an election issue.
These, concludes Booker, are just some of the issues which will remain undiscussed at this election, reflecting how much of our government has now passed to the new system centred in Brussels, unaccountable to any electorate. This inflicts endless damage, from the chaos over our new "118" system for directory enquiries to the continuing disaster of our fisheries.
But the more the power to run our country is taken out of our politicians' hands, the more reluctant they are to talk about it. This is why debate will continue to centre round the same obsessive little list of issues - schools'n'hospitals, crime'n'tax - ignoring that ever greater "European black hole" into which our right to govern ourselves is steadily vanishing.