What’s the idea?

William Hague gave a rare speech on the EU this week. Entitled “Europe at a crossroads: what kind of Europe do we want?”, he sought to map out some of the major challenges the EU faces, having sung the praises of the Single Market.

These he listed as: differentiated integration; democratic legitimacy; and division of competences. Obviously, these overlap and are in turn mediated through particular projects. Hague’s representation of the British stance on the Eurozone crisis highlighted the very difficult position of being an interested by-stander: “Clearly the Eurozone’s current structures are not working. We respect the democratic decision of the countries of the Eurozone to preserve it.  That will require changes. We know the options. It is not for Britain to tell you what the exact remedy should be.” It’s akin to the old Harry Enfield sketch of the “only me!” man: he might be right to point out problems, but it’s not the best way to build lasting relationships.

Hague noted deep public disillusionment with the EU and feeling that it was a one-way ratchet of centralisation: “If we cannot show that decision-making can flow back to national parliaments then the system will become democratically unsustainable.” This was all seized on by some media as a veiled threat to the EU of withdrawal, but that is a hopeful, rather than an accurate reading. Certainly, it seems somewhat willful on Hague’s part, given the Lisbon provisions on national parliaments.

My perspective is that this was a speech about laying down markers, without constraining action. Hague mentioned Single Market reform, the budget negotiations, the JHA opt-out (presented here as “re-balancing”), all to make the point that these areas can be conceptualised in a more pro-EU way, as helping the Union to resolve those basic challenges.  Even the Review of Competences was presented as a means to improving European governance, rather than a prelude to renegotiation or withdrawal.

More notably, the speech didn’t set out a major new agenda or policy: it was a placeholder. The “embracing of diversity” that ran through the speech has been a staple of Foreign Secretaries’ contributions for decades now. Instead, it highlights the primacy of internal Conservative party politics in guiding debate. Just as the ECHR ruling on votes for prisoners is showing, any constructive engagement is shouted down by backbenchers, while the Cabinet struggles to find a modus vivendi.

It’s hard to see how this can change within the current parliament: sadly, the rest of the EU might not be on the same schedule.