It’s almost the end of the academic year (I get to spend most of tomorrow dressed up in my robes for graduation), so it’s a good point to reflect on the past year.

In political terms, it is hard to feel that we have moved on at all: last October, I was writing about the Conservatives and Europe, saying much the same as I was last week. Similarly, the EU looked to have an opportunity for structural reform with the creation of technocratic governments in Greece and Italy, a promise that has only partially been realised, much as successive European Councils have still not found sufficient common ground to provide a definitive and comprehensive package that gives financial markets more lasting cause to stand down.

Indeed, it is sometimes easy to forget that we have been in some form of financial crisis since 2007 and seemingly nothing has been bad enough to act as an unambiguous external driver to integration. We might reflect upon this when we look back to the post-1945 situation, where economics and security aligned to provide strong incentives to integrate: then again, back then we also ended up with a core moving forward, to be caught by the periphery: hardly a recipe for generating positive attitudes in the UK, if that is a concern.

We remain then in a period of stasis: most people on the street not being very interested in the EU, most politicians thinking in terms of costs and benefits rather than community. It is a mark of the weakness of the European public sphere that the most conspicuous voices are those of people opposed to integration, who quite reasonably feel the wind in their sails. If the EU is to have any future, then this has to change and the full range of views needs to be actively expressed and debated.

Back in Surrey, it’s also a chance for us to reflect on our work with social media: over the past year, we have worked hard to develop channels on facebook, twitter, our blogs, as well as our School website. It has been particularly heartening to see that work being picked up by colleagues in other institutions, the media and more widely with other groups and individuals. We are now working through a review of all of this, to consider how we progress on this, as well as how we might share our practice with others. My personal impressions are that these channels have been very useful in connecting with new audiences, in testing out new ideas for subsequent development in more formal research and in building an extended culture of debate and reflection, both within and beyond the School. At the same time, it does require notable start-up and running costs (mostly of time to produce content): online, you can’t just make something then leave it.

I will immediately underline the last point by saying that I’m not posting for the next month or so, since I’m off to South East Asia on an extended holiday. I would tempt fate by saying that nothing happens in the EU in the summer, but i’ve learnt enough to know that this isn’t actually true. Until then, I wish you all a pleasant summer, whatever you are doing.

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William Hague’s statement on an audit of EU powers today marks the end of a little run of developments in Conservative policy on the EU, as well as presaged the opening of a new round of what we might hopefully call ‘debate’ on the subject.

On Tuesday, the Fresh Start Group published its long-trailed ‘Green Paper’ on renegotiatingUK membership.  The paper itself represents one of the most developed pieces of research that has been conducted by a sceptic group, with an extensive discussion of options set out with a traffic light coding, to be taken to a next stage of deliberation.

The document is typical of the current face of eurosceptic approaches in the UK.  Rather than framing the debate as being about “In versus out”, it instead talks about the need to renegotiate membership, because (in the words of George Eustice on the PM programme that same day):

“Europe is at a crossroads – part of the problem we have at the moment is that the euro is failing and the process of European integration is starting to throw up all sorts of problems and it’s brought the EU to the brink and I think it’s very important therefore that […] we also get our approach on this particular issue right.”

This sounds rather reasonable and pragmatic, until one reads the document.  Of the 70+ suggestions, all of the green (‘measures that can be achieved without renegotiation’) are effectively current UK policy in any case; most of the yellow (‘measures required renegotiation’) appear effectively impossible, with repeated notes that such discussions have previously encountered deep resistance from other member states; and the red (‘unilateral breaking of treaty obligations’) are all illegal under public international law.  In short, none of them seem to be options.

Fresh Start’s plan is that following debate on their Green Paper, they produce a White Paper with a definitive list, which they will then lobby the government to pursue, with a referendum on the final outcome of renegotiations.  But the discussion of the Green Paper will be on the basis solely of comments from “Conservative MPs, Peers and MEPs”, i.e. a purely partisan debate.  The only point where the public are permitted to have a say is after everything is done and dusted, a position which jars with the long push from eurosceptics to ‘give the people a say.’

Moreover, despite the long discussion of options, there is hardly anything on why other member states should give anything to the UK. Mention is made in passing of the value of access to the UKeconomy and to the potential leverage offered by the need for treaty reform on economic governance, but with no substance to back that up. As I have discussed before, theUK has squandered any opportunity to engage positively with the eurozone crisis, and it is hard to see how turning up inBrussels with Fresh Start’s ‘shopping list’ of demands would improve that.

The Tory leadership finds itself in a difficult position, with a rebellious backbench that increasingly sees the LibDems as forcing them to compromise on fundamental issues (the EU, Lords reform, etc.).  By contrast, Cameron, Osborne and Hague have to manage an on-going relationship with other European capitals and retain some control over their party.

Hague in particular is caught on the horns of a dilemma.  He wrote a foreword the Green Paper, even if one can hear the deep ambivalence in phrases such as:

“I congratulate the Fresh Start Project and all its contributors on the publication of this Green Paper, which does just that. It is a considerable piece of work with many interesting ideas that deserves and will receive proper consideration.”

In announcing a comprehensive audit of EU powers, Hague presumably hopes to park this particular thrust from a group that contains several of the most vociferous voices on the EU in the party.  Coming just before the recess and with a planned completion date of 2014, this is not been given a top priority: no one looks particularly keen to rush into a negotiating room.  The eurosceptic camp will know this and will want to push the issue soon, while they feel that they have leverage, so this is a dog that will continue to be deprived any sleep.

In his PM interview, Eustice was asked whether he was ‘banging on about Europe’ (as per Cameron’s 2006 speech), to which he gave a telling reply:

“I don’t think we are, because what we are saying here – and I’m someone who thinks that there are many more important issues to the public, like the economy – that’s number one, that’s got to be our focus – there are issues like welfare reform and education, which are very high priorities for this government, and rightly so […] Now I don’t think that means banging on about Europe but it does mean having the right position on Europe” (emphasis added)

As we have seen, there is plenty of debate about those other issues and those debates have shown that we don’t necessarily have ‘the right position’ on any of them.  However, it’s only ‘Europe’ that is getting this treatment: The Tories’ internal conflict on the EU continues.


UPDATE 13/07/2012

Since writing the post, I’ve been able to talk with FCO officials, who stressed the Hague’s audit (full details here) was solely about raising knowledge of the situation, to allow all involved to make more informed contributions.  In addition, as Hague was at pains to underline in the Commons, the audit does not presuppose any particular course of action, nor any commitment to renegotiation, etc.  These are potentially very positive contributions to what has been a low standard of debate for too long.  The only question is how long the government can keep its impartiality on the process.

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Ann-Marie Slaughter’s recent piece “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” published in The Atlantic earlier this year has gone viral. It has generated wide reaching debate in policy and academic circles. This is clearly a heartfelt piece. Slaughter provides a candid overview of the struggles and internal conflict she felt as a working mother.

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There is an embarrassment of riches that could be discussed this week, even under this heading: from ACTA to referenda, the issue of the EU seems to be gaining media profile, if not public interest.

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