The Meaning of No

Sir Desmond Glazebrook: ‘Surely a decision’s a decision?’
Sir Humphrey Appleby: ‘Only if it’s the decision you want. If not it’s just a temporary setback.’
‘Yes, Minister’, 1981

The rejection of the Treaty of Lisbon by Irish voters has been the subject of much triumphalist crowing by Eurosceptics, much dismissive arrogance by Europhiles and much fevered speculation by the pundits. It clearly is not the end of the line for the Europroject, nor is it just a democratic bump on the road to ever closer union. Those without entrenched positions have called for a debate on the future of Europe, for pause and reflection. Nice try. And good luck. Because it’s the right answer.

The debate is not illuminated by those sad folks for whom the European Union is a conspiracy. Whether it is meant to be Hitler’s legacy or Stalin’s is not always clear but for the sake of the argument it matters not a jot. The conspiracy could just as well be run by the Vatican, the CIA, Al Quaeda or the Elders of Zion. And occasionally the argument is precisely that it is. Europe deserves better than such tabloid tripe.

But that does not excuse what is done in the Union’s name. A truly great generation concluded that a repetition of the Second European Civil War was avoidable only if national rivalries were transcended for good. They have been let down badly by institutions awash with corruption and incompetence. They also failed to see how the hope enshrined in ‘ever closer union’ would become in later hands the seedcorn of a totalitarian super-state. (It is ‘ever looser union’ that will really cut the nation-states down to size.) Worst of all, we, in Wessex, have been let down by successive British governments who have simply signed everything the bureaucrats have put in front of them. And then blamed everyone but themselves for the consequences.

The Wessex Regionalist Party defends the interests of Wessex. That is our basic position. We have no automatic loyalty either to the United Kingdom or to the European Union: loyalty must be earned by actions. We do not accept that the interests of Wessex should be sacrificed to an alleged common good, whether English, British or European. We are not anti-European; nor do we uncritically accept all that is done in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Our aim is a decentralised Europe, a European confederation of small nations and historic regions that recognises our continent’s traditional cultural diversity as its greatest strength. We must limit the centralisation of powers both to Europe and to the current state capitals such as London and Paris. At the same time, we recognise that such a Europe, whose chief political units would be smaller than today’s nation-states, could not survive without common institutions to address the bigger economic, social and environmental problems we all face. Pollution, for example, is no respecter of frontiers. In a regionalised Europe, Wessex would be represented directly at European level; we would no longer have to rely on disinterested ministers from London to put our case for us.

Our aim is therefore to uphold the principle of subsidiarity, that nothing should be done at a wider level that can be done as effectively, or more effectively, at a narrower level. Transfers of power outwards should always be subject to a referendum of those affected and must always be reversible. This is not the case with the existing European treaties and we therefore insist that they be re-negotiated.

The European Union is remote, unaccountable and dominated by vested economic interests – but the same criticisms can be levelled with at least equal force at our own institutions. Its record on environmental protection and social welfare legislation has put successive British governments to shame. Nevertheless, it has presided over colossal failures – the Common Agricultural Policy foremost among them – and radical reform of structures and priorities alike is long overdue.

We reject the super-state model of the EU as over-centralised and conformist. The EU should address transnational ecological issues; regulate multinational companies; regionalise the European economy; balance needs and resources within Europe and with the rest of the world; resolve disputes between member states and promote understanding between their peoples. (And how about promoting knowledge of Latin as the neutral European language?) Other issues, including trade and economic policy, should be left to the regions to deal with. These should be free to co-operate on matters of shared concern with groups of like-minded regions, free either to reach agreement on issues of particular interest to them or to do their own thing without criticism from others. This is a multi-track Europe. It is not a multi-speed Europe, a phrase suggesting that the destination is pre-determined, with only the pace still to be set.

If a club enlarges its membership, the scope for disagreements automatically grows and new ways of working are needed. This ought to be treated as an opportunity, not as a threat. Yet all the reform talk is about increasing uniformity over an ever wider area, with less and less scope for national sovereignty. This is no way to enthuse people about Europe. Rather than scrapping vetoes we should be restoring them – and extending them to regional level so that Wessex, no less than Luxembourg, can safeguard its vital interests. The result will be a more diverse Europe, with policies better tuned to regional realities. We should have the courage and confidence to assert that it will not be a weaker solution if the European Union as a whole can agree on fewer things than it has in the past. Far from it. The Irish vote is not the beginning of the end. But, if taken as a constructive rebuke, it could yet be the end of the beginning.