Europe is a poisonous issue in British politics. The debate touches some of the most visceral points in the British body politic. In the end the debate about British membership of the European Union is, at its most basic level, a debate about identity. Those who are most opposed to the EU regard it as a threat to the very idea of Britain and to British identity. Those most in favour sometimes support the EU for precisely the same reasons. The debate is conducted through megaphones, with both sides predicting apocalypse should the other side prevail.
The debate has been growing more urgent since the collapse of communism and the reunification of Germany. Up until that time, the key relationship was between West Germany and France. After the reunification of Germany the balance of power changed substantially. Haunted by the fear that a united Germany would be more assertive, France hoped to create a European Union that would align the interests of the members more closely. The result was a series of reforms that created a genuine common market for the first time. The single market was actually a British proposal initiated by Lord Cockfield, and it has proven to be both the most enduring and least controversial aspect of the organisation that from 1994 was newly re minted as the European Union. Even those most opposed to European political cohesion may grudgingly suggest that the EU should be "the common market, which is all we were supposed to have joined in 1973".
However in order to agree and control the terms of the single market, greater political cohesion is unavoidable. A market is only as strong as the rules that can be enforced to control it. Thus, entering into a common market, by definition, involves a reduction in the freedom of action of a member state. Therefore the argument about political sovereignty is a red herring- if a market can not take sanctions to enforce its rules, then it is not a real market. The fact is that the debate is not about whether an individual state can maintain political sovereignty, but how much of its sovereignty it chooses to pool in the system. However, the European Union does not have the same political legitimacy that any one of the nation states has, and neither is it accountable directly to a democratic mandate. It is this crisis of legitimacy that lies at the heart of the debates in the last decade, at least as much as the need for more streamlined administration in a Europe of 27 or even more member states.
For those who regard the EU as an unaccountable bureaucracy it is slightly ironic that both the failed Constitutional Treaty and the Treaty of Lisbon, currently passing through the process of ratification, were intended to improve the position of the European Parliament and thus increase democratic oversight of the EU. Many of the reforms in both treaties seem long overdue: for example, giving the organisation a legal personality, so that it can sign international agreements in its own right; or formally linking the administration of different bodies, such as the European Central Bank or the European Court of Justice with the administration of the EU itself; or creating formal rules for the accession process for new member states or indeed for states to leave the Union. Much of the Treaty contains practical and important changes, aside from the more controversial issues such as a Presidency and the creation of a new EU foreign ministry.
Yet the fact is that the Constitution failed, and even if Ireland still ratifies the Treaty of Lisbon there is still significant and entrenched opposition to the changes that the Treaty proposes, and this opposition is strident and angry.
To my mind, the problem remains one of identity and legitimacy. The European Union has failed to justify, or even explain, its purpose, and there is the strong sense that the organisation is seeking to subvert or even replace the states that are its members. While, there are undoubtedly federalists who truly believe that this would be a positive outcome, the vast majority of Europeans do not want to see a United States of Europe. In my view the only way for the organisation to restore its popularity is to define itself more clearly. In particular it should make clear the limits to its activities. The EU used to define its purpose as creating "an ever closer union"- in other words it had an open-ended commitment to increasing its role and the scope of its activities. The time has come for the EU to do the reverse and set the limits of its activities.
The supporters of the European Union must now explain what the EU is for and what the limits should be. As for those of us who believe in the Liberal idea of setting limits to state power, it is time we contributed to the argument too. In general the European Union serves a significant positive purpose and I see a clear net benefit, but it is still suffering from a lack of democracy and an excess of ambition. Unless the Union can reform itself to change this, it will suffer from an ever growing crisis of legitimacy, irrespective of the result from Ireland this week.