You would have thought that three MEPs from three different political parties debating the relationship between the present British government and the European Union would have been fraught with heated debate, not to say downright disagreement.
Not so on Saturday afternoon at Kingston University when Conservative MEP Charles Tannock, Jean Lambert MEP from the Green Party and I discussed the issue with a group of students. It was unfortunate there was no representative from the Liberal-Democrats as this may have added a different perspective.
My view is that the UK has always had a semi-detached relationship with the EU whichever party is in power. Tony Blair talked about being at the heart of Europe but failed to take the UK into the Euro. In addition, we are not in the Schengen agreement, which, amongst other things, does away with passports.
However, there would appear to be a fault line in the present Coalition government in that the Tories have a strong and vociferous Eurosceptic wing while one of the defining characteristics of the Liberal Democrats has always been that they are enthusiastically pro-European.
This is, I’m sure, one of the reasons David Cameron has accepted the EU Council of Ministers decision that the EU budget should rise by 2.9% this year rather than pushing for the freeze demanded by his Eurosceptic wing. It’s also one of the reasons he is not putting Nicolas Sarkozy’s and Angela Merkel’s demands for a change to the Lisbon Treaty to allow greater stability for the Euro to a referendum in this country. (You will remember that a referendum on any EU treaty change was one of the Tories’ manifesto promises in the 2010 general election).
What is, however very clear is that much more power now resides in the EU. The Lisbon Treaty extended this and the establishment of the EU External Action Service only underlines the extent of EU’s reach.
Both Charles and Jean largely agreed with this analysis. Charles Tannock, a supporter of further EU enlargement, talked about the benefits of EU membership concentrating on trade and the economy. He also pointed out that the increasing use of English within the EU, which received an enormous boost after the 2004 enlargement, gave the British a big advantage.
Jean raised an interesting point about the rise of fringe parties in the UK such as UKIP and the BNP and elsewhere, notably the Tea Party in the United States. Manistream parties should learn from these new movements, what Jean called “angry politics”. While maybe not exactly related to the Coalition government and the EU-UK relationship it was a powerful and important point.
My thanks to the organisers of the event from Kingston University – Dr Atsuko Ichijo, Dr Robin Pettitt and Dr Elizabeth Evans for putting on an excellent programme and also for giving up their Saturday afternoon.