A confusing poll on Europe – but does it matter?

The elections for the European Parliament in June will inevitably be regarded a referendum on the performance of governments coping with recession. This is a pity, and will create great confusion over public attitudes on the future of the Europe. Even in the Republic where the EU has a much bigger profile than in the UK and where issues have traditionally been debated on merit, the Euro-vote will be cast as a referendum on the beleaguered government. But the Euro-dimension remains. Whether or not Fianna Fail suffers meltdown, the Euro poll will be treated a a referendum on holding a referendum on the Treaty before November. Although proxy politics like this confuses the issues, I take consolation from the fact that the Treaty itself hardly matters now, whatever the vote. Continuing stalemate will do little real damage. The recession has shown an EU marking time and a big reversion to the authority of national governments. At best, the EU – or more particularly the eurozone – is now regarded as an air raid shelter from the economic blitzkrieg. It will take time before the European dimension picks up dynamic again.

That is why it’s puzzling that a bullish William Hague has chosen to rub an old sore and raise the profile of Conservative calls for a EU referendum, whether or not it’s ratified by the time he expects to become Foreign Secretary. I can only assume apart from indulging his own acute euro-scepticism, he’s sounding a dog whistle blast to help get out the core Tory vote in June, not only for the European Parliament but for elections to many English councils. And of course, to embarrass Gordon Brown further ( if that’s possible after this week) over his u-turn on Tony Blair’s referendum pledge.

“Mr Hague said that, if it were not ratified by the time of a Tory victory, there would be a referendum “in the opening months” and a Bill preparing for the vote would be ready. If the treaty had been ratified, the party would, nevertheless, spell out in its manifesto what action it would take to reverse European integration. Pressed on whether in those circumstances a referendum could still be promised in a Tory manifesto, he said: “We would not rule anything in or out.”

But as Eurosceptic Gerald Warner says, David Cameron’s pledge is more carefully ambiguous. Is there a just a little strain between the leader and his deputy on Europe? It’s still hard to see how a Cameron government next year coping with the cuts and possible chaos would want to waste political energy and capital on it.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London