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Why do British politicians find it so hard to talk about the EU?

As the general election rolls around into its final phase it’s worth observing one of the great paradoxes of British political life. On the one hand, everyone says that ‘Europe’ is an important issue and that we must debate it, but on the other, nobody ever seems to actually have that debate.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Indeed, apart from the 2001 campaign – when William Hague told us it would be the last chance to save the pound (and promptly lost) – it’s hard to think of an election in the past 40 years where it has played any real role.

Instead, what debate there has been has centred around a referendum on British membership of the European Union. Just a Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party helped push its competitors to promise a popular vote on joining the Euro in 1997, so too has UKIP (much aided and abetted by Tory backbenchers) moved parties to a position of holding a vote in the event of any further extension of the EU’s powers.

But this is not a debate about the EU; it’s a debate about whether and when to hold a referendum. Tellingly, what discussion of the European Union there has been in this campaign has centred on how much we can trust each party to follow through on their promises of a vote. UKIP say the Tories will avoid one (like they did with the Lisbon treaty); the Tories say Labour makes an empty promise by suggesting there will be no treaty reform; the SNP tie it up with Scottish independence; and so on.

What has been missing is any debate about what (non-)membership of the EU really means, no discussion about what purpose it holds for the country.

Three reasons present themselves as explanations.

The first is that the referendum question is so central that it demands attention. Certainly, such a vote would be important, but as Tony Blair noted – in possibly the only major speech on the subject so far in the campaign – just because it’s important, doesn’t mean it’s sensible. The uncertainty that a discussion of holding a referendum creates has consequences of its own and one doesn’t have to look far to find other member states wondering whether it’s worth investing time and effort in accommodating a country that might be off in a couple of years.

Put differently, a referendum debate shouldn’t replace a ‘Europe’ debate.

The second approach flows from this, namely that there is no ‘Europe’ debate because no-one has any real ideas about the EU. A cursory glance at the past five years will suffice to illustrate this point; the Coalition government has singularly failed to produce a European strategy of any consequence. Instead, David Cameron has engaged in a balancing act between party management and coalition management, with no thought as to a positive agenda. Labour have been no better, taking an opportunistic approach to those EU issues that have come up to inflict party political damage on the government. Even UKIP struggles to explain what is so wrong with the EU that requires British withdrawal.

This lack of intellectual engagement is further enhanced by the media, who struggle to find a way of representing European politics as anything other than ‘pro’/’anti’ or ‘good’/’bad’. Without much popular interest in the subject and without a strong lead from politicians, media coverage remains cursory and sensationalistic. Hence all the fuss about the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President last year: neither the press nor Cameron could quite bring themselves to portray him as another other than a man hell-bent on creating a European super-state, when in practice his scope for action is severely constrained.

And this is the final reason for the lack of real debate: the discomfort with accepting that Europe is a place of compromise.

In the British political system, a majoritarian view holds strong: you win an election, form a government, then do pretty much as you please. But the EU doesn’t work like that. European elections don’t produce a European government – as the Juncker case illustrates – but rather another element to a constantly shifting constellation of negotiations. If you can accept that the EU was set up to help make conflict between France and Germany more difficult, then the idea of that Union as a form of power-diffusion shouldn’t be too hard to accept.

But that’s a very hard message to sell. We can’t promise anything definitively in matters European, because it’s not just for us to decide. Member states have to work with each other, and with the Commission and European Parliament, to find consensual solutions.

And yet, not all is lost. With an election that looks set to underline as never before the end of two-party politics, there is an opportunity for British politics and politicians to change. If coalition politics is to become the new norm – especially if electoral reform takes place – then the notion of compromise and consensus will become much more prevalent. If so, then we might finally begin to start having the debate about the EU and Britain’s role in it that we have missed for so long.

Featured image: European flags in Brussels. © Jorisvo via iStock.

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