An honest assessment

Roger Liddle

Ahead of two Lords debates on the EU, Roger Liddle considers Europe’s ongoing strengths and weaknesses

Today sees the Report stage in the Lords of two small Bills ratifying EU treaties. Their passage is likely to be uncontroversial – unlike the increasingly torrid build up to David Cameron’s much delayed ‘speech’ on Europe this Friday in Amsterdam – but the Lords debates are not without significance. 

First, these Bills are a reminder that every time the EU changes its rule book, however small the change, it requires a change in the treaties that the national parliaments of the member states have to endorse. 

We may not like to be reminded of this when we bemoan the way the EU works – and there is much that needs reform. However, the EU we have only exists because the British parliament, the British government and British ministers, have signed up for it all along the way. It is not a ‘foreign other’-something “over there” that ‘Europe’ has imposed on us. Yet, the Cameron government persists in pursuing its policy of isolationism.

Secondly, one of the main purposes of these two bills is to ratify the accession of Croatia to the EU. This year, we will have to start talking about the EU28 rather than the EU27. 

Britain has always been a major supporter and driver of EU expansion. So, it is a bit ironic that half the Conservative Party appears to be seething with discontent with the Prime Minister over the very same EU that five million Croatians are still so keen to join. What a contrast of attitudes! Indeed, for most Croatians joining the EU is a symbol of their independence and nationhood. It’s an affirmation that they meet the standards of a modern democratic nation, at long last able to move on from the horrors and appalling human rights atrocities that occurred in the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, in the early 1990s. 

The whole episode shows at one and the same time the weakness and strengths of the existing EU. When Yugoslavia began to break up in disarray, Luxembourg held the EU Presidency and her unfortunate foreign minister infamously declared: “this is the hour of Europe”. It should have been, but Europe proved incapable of halting the slaughter. Only after two US-led military interventions under the Clinton administration, in Bosnia in 1995 and Kosovo in 1999, was a fragile peace in the western Balkans established. 

These experiences made the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair rethink his attitude to European defence. Europe needed a capability for independent action because it was unacceptable (and frankly unsustainable, with end of the Cold War and America’s more Pacific orientation) that it should be so dependent on the US to sort out problems in its own neighbourhood. And while Europe has not made as much progress as it should have to realise Blair’s vision, his decision will go down as one of the more significant achievements of Labour’s European policy.

The strength of the EU has been shown in the part it has played in Croatia’s transformation from the Tudjman era of quasi-autocracy, dodgy human rights and some terrible war crimes to taking its place in the EU as a modern European democracy. It demonstrates again why the EU fully deserved the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Lord Roger Liddle is Labour’s spokesman on Europe in the House of Lords

Published 16th January 2013


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