Over the long haul, the most politically significant speech made by any policy-maker in the past couple of weeks is unlikely to be those from the US presidential conventions or Draghi's announcement of the ECB's bond-buying attempt to save the euro. Instead, it will probably be European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso's state of the union address to the European Parliament. In that speech Barroso calls for an outright political union of EU members, which he refers to as a "federation of nation states".
You think you've heard this before, some vague long-term goal without immediate relevance? No! Barroso states that, in advance of the 2014 European Parliament elections – so in potentially little more than a year – the European Commission will produce explicit plans for the introduction of a new Treaty to formally establish such a federation. The aim appears to be to make the details of the new federation a central issue in the 2014 European Parliament elections – to give us all the chance to debate.
Barroso explicitly states that "This is not just a debate for the Euro area in its present membership. While deeper integration is indispensable for the Euro area and its members, this project should remain open to all Member States….No one will be forced to come along. And no one will be forced to stay out. The speed will not be dictated by the slowest or the most reluctant." Translation: If the British want to leave, that's fine with us.
For, in truth, the process of deeper integration, always inevitable flowing from the underlying principles of the European Union but significant accelerated by the euro crisis, is already rendering Britain's EU membership irrelevant. By December 2011, when Cameron sought some very minor repatriation of powers, Eurozone members, focused upon their own real problems, considered Britain's concerns irrelevant. It isn't even really that they disagree with us, any more. We aren't important enough to disagree with. There is no point in debating things with us to try to work out a common position. We simply don't matter to them.
What was already true by 2011 will be true in spades by 2014 – assuming the euro and thus EU last until then. The concerns of the EU will be in building the political union that was always the point and is now an urgent necessity, given the Eurozone crisis. We will be onlookers. No-one will be interested in horse-trading with us over anything, let alone any repatriation of powers. We won't be able to delay any new Treaty with a "veto". If we don't want to take part (and other EU members would be amazed and confused if we did now want to take part), they'll simply form a Treaty without us, as they did in December 2011.
Whereas in the 1980s and 1990s Britain was a key intellectual driving force in the establishment of the Single Market, in the devising of competition and trade rules, in the development of the Single Market in financial services – whereas then we steered events, now we are barely even passangers. By 2014 we will be watching the car go by.
The only real sense in which these events are a threat to Britain is that they mean we have totally missed the opportunity to renegotiate our position within the EU. The only real questions are whether (a) we'll be kicked out; (b) we'll leave; or (c) our EU membership will rapidly become so irrelevant that no-one will think it worth formally kicking us out and we won't formally bother to leave – we'll instead just have an odd semi-detached status. Perhaps, under the (c) scenario we might even be able to draw in other countries as partners with our same status? Maybe Canada could acquire the same status, relative to the Federation of European States, as Britain or maybe Britain and Canada could combine themselves in some relevant way (e.g. via a customs union) that then shared co-jointly in Britain's current EU status? There are many possibilities.
Either way, it now appears that comfortably before a 2015 General Election there will be concrete proposals, including a draft Treaty, to establish the EU formally as a confederacy. What status Britain wants, relative to that confederacy, is not an issue that the major parties will be able to avoid debating at the 2015 General Election. Indeed, there is every chance that that will be the single biggest political issue of the election. Will there be some referendum, for example, regarding our relationship with the European confederacy?
Yet British politicians are way behind the play. At Prime Minister's Questions, yesterday, there was not one single question on Barroso's potentially epochal proposals. Indeed, David Willetts declared, in response to Barroso's speech: "My heart sinks when I hear this…the last thing we need is another agonising debate on all this theology." As if what Barroso is proposing is some airy-fairy thing when what really counts are some "concrete", "practical", "day-to-day", "bread-and-butter" issues. What Barroso is proposing is what is absolutely essential if the Eurozone is not to disintegrate inducing depression and perhaps even revolutions and civil wars across half of Europe. It doesn't get much more "real world" and "practical" than that.
This is not some irrelevant abstraction, or a matter for decades hence that won't affect the politics of our lifetime. This is something that, unless the euro collapses, is coming to a cinema near you within eighteen months, and certainly well in advance of the next General Election. Our politicians need to think about how we should respond, debate it, and tell us where they stand. Well before the next General Election – indeed, probably before the 2014 European Parliament elections, only a year and a half away – the major parties will have to tell the British public their answers to the following:
- When there is a Federation of European Nations, will we want to cling on to semi-detached EU membership (assuming we won't be kicked out)?
- If we do, will we try to bring in others with us (e.g. Canada)?
- If we do not, and we leave the EU, how do we do it – e.g. do we need a referendum, or do we just leave?
- And if and when we leave – as we probably now shall, in the next Parliament – what should we do next?