Fog in Westminster by Peter Sutherland, Federal Trust

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John Palmer reviews Fog in Westminster - Europe Cut Off by Peter Sutherland.

This pamphlet shows how narrow and unreflective the European debate is in Britain and how misguided the government's approach to integration has been.

This Federal Trust essay by Peter Sutherland - former Commissioner and Secretary-General of the World Trade Organisation - is both an excoriating criticism of successive British governments and their handling of relations with the European Union and a lament for the decades of British missed opportunity in Europe. Sutherland rehearses in withering but objective detail the saga of how, under Margaret Thatcher. the Tories abandoned their historically pro-European mission for an increasingly strident, populist and euro-phobic nationalism. Then he spends more time and passion on the bitter disappointments of Labour's refusal to espouse a positive commitment to Europe first under Tony Blair, now under Gordon Brown.

In a review of British policy towards the European Union over the past 25 years, he argues that the "continuity of European policy between New Labour and its predecessor in government has been remarkable." Neither party, in Peter Sutherland's view, has had the "courage to explain to the British electorate that political integration within the European Union is central to the way the Union works, that the European institutions are a necessary part of this integration ... and that political integration is beneficial to those who participate in it."

Having mishandled the opportunity to join the creation of the euro at its birth - which Sutherland puts down to the "chaotic" character of the ongoing debate between Blair and Brown - Labour soon adopted a strategy which amounted to supporting British participation in the EU on its own terms and only insofar as the Union followed the British views and policies (ed: on Brown's neglect of the EU see the recent OK article by David Marquand). This was dressed up in terms of resistance to a non-existent bogey: "a European federal super state" - language inherited wholesale from the Thatcher and Major eras.

There are at least two fatal flaws in this conspiracy theory of federalism. The first is that it in no way relates the reality: what Jacques Delors once described as "a federalising European Union" is characterised as much by devolution of power downwards (to regions and communities) as it is upwards to the EU itself. The second is that it fails to recognise that EU member states have been and continue to be willing to share sovereignty through binding legal and political processes to confront challenges and problems which defy solution at the purely national level. Indeed Sutherland might have made more of the fact that policies get transferred from the dimension of inter-governmental cooperation to decision making at the EU level, when hard experience has repeatedly demonstrated the poverty of actual results from mere "cooperation."

The story of European integration shows every sign of continuing as states wrestle with ever greater and more complex challenges - especially those arising from the process of globalisation itself. What is emerging in terms of a political union is indeed sui generis - neither a cooperative alliance of states nor a federal state along American lines. As Sutherland puts it: "The likely future institutional model of the European Union will not be that of Europe à la carte, or even of "variable geometry" but one of continuing political and institutional integration, from which individual countries may wish to distance themselves on an occasional or regular basis. If the United Kingdom wishes to continue with its scepticism towards the continuing political integration of the European Union, it will not have many allies in doing so."

In this essay Peter Sutherland does not deal with some of the new trends emerging within the EU which are likely to impact on what has so far been a timeless but arid debate in Britain. Might, for instance, we see in future Scotland and Wales (not to say the north of Ireland) moving to more active engagement with the European Union than England as the UK itself federalises? Where will this leave England?

The growing "politicisation" of the EU also raises the opportunity for far greater democratisation of decision making at the European level. Maybe - starting with the 2009 European Parliament elections and the resulting election for the first time of a Commission President - we will see ideological and political divisions become more important at the EU level than "national" differences. By expropriating from the euro-sceptics the democratic cause, those who welcome the politicisation of the EU may be able to start a healthier and more constructive debate about Europe's future.

(Fog in Westminster, Federal Trust, Jan. 2008, 32pp)

John Palmer is a member of the Advisory Council of the European Policy Centre and its former Political Director, Peter Sutherland is its President. They are both members of the Federal Trust Council.