Friday, October 26, 2007

House Points: Europe and boundaries

My House Points column from today's Liberal Democrat News - perhaps not my most inspired effort.

I heard Michael Meadowcroft tell the Berehovo story at a Liberator fringe meeting at Lib Dem Conference a couple of years ago. On his own website Michael credits it to the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn.

No boundaries

Gordon Brown was back from Lisbon on Monday, waving his red lines. Cheered on by the Tory benches, David Cameron demanded a referendum on the reform treaty. His party is feeling happier, but that's largely because it has reverted to the agenda that lost it the last three elections.

This will give whoever wins the Liberal Democrat leadership contest - and House Points in scrupulously neutral - a terrific opportunity.

It fell to Vince Cable to lead for us. And for the first time our demand for a referendum on our continued membership of the European Union made sense to me.

Vince said much has changed since Harold Wilson's referendum of 1975. There has been the Single European Act, the Maastricht treaty, the Amsterdam and Nice treaties, and now this one. "The time has come for consultation with the British public on the cumulative effect of those treaties, because there is anxiety about national sovereignty, and that has to be addressed through public debate."

But the danger is that such a referendum would be about the past. If it were won - and it would probably be won by scaring voters about the economic consequences of withdrawal - it would only give retrospective approval to those treaties. The first time something new came up, we would be back to square one.

It would be backward-looking for the Lib Dems too. For decades, it was congratulating ourselves on our foresight in backing the Common Market that kept up our morale. But Europe is a more complex issue these days.

Michael Meadowcroft is fond of using a story about a peasant from the village of Berehovo to show how arbitrary national boundaries are. The peasant says: "I was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, educated in Czechoslovakia, started work in Hungary and was for a time in Germany, spent most of my adult life in the Soviet Union and now I am retired in the Ukrainian Republic." His companion says, "You must have done a lot of travelling." "Not at all," replies the peasant, "I never left Berehovo."

But the boundaries of Europe are arbitrary too. When we debate whether Turkey should join the EU, we find there are no simple answers any more.

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