Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Division in UK will hurt us all as anti-EU tide rises

The Eastleigh by-election has put British Prime Minister David Cameron under threat for not turning back the UKIP tide, having established a Conservative strategy to do just that with a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU..

UKIP wants to end that membership. Mr Cameron does not. But he does want to change it significantly, with reforms restoring greater democracy and restraining other threats to sovereignty.

That sovereignty is, in part, vested in Britain remaining outside the euro and protecting its biggest industry – financial services.

In terms of the EU's overall problems, Ireland occupies a tiny pimple of favour into which Manuel Barroso throws comfortable words of praise occasionally. Our problem is modest from Europe's point of view. It should not conceal the worries that Britain has.

These involve present and future prospects of the EU, with which Mr Cameron seeks to strike a new market relationship. He aims, at the same time, to preserve key British assets from an EU that is doing badly, and wants to constrain working parts that are successful in the British system.

The EU was not constructed for failure nor organised to have answers for the rise in unemployment, bank collapses and bailouts, a rising tide of debt and economic stagnation. It has been making up the rules as it went along and any careful judgment would see as toxic the arrangement we have had to suffer with the visits to our country of the troika.

These EU overlords come from the least competitive trading bloc in the world. Hardly surprising that Britain under Mr Cameron seeks to keep other options open.

As we have seen to our cost, the EU is a policeman, rectifying errors – like the banking collapse – having failed to regulate that area beforehand. It must be said it lacked the policy intelligence and supervisory capacity to make a good job of that.

Where this matters, in terms of the Eastleigh by-election, lies in the different solutions emerging from those British political parties that have the global vision but are at odds with each other.

Charles Moore, the former editor of the 'Daily Telegraph', writing last Saturday, deplores his past respect for political party differences, now seeing all British political parties as the same.

He is right in that the EU has become increasingly authoritarian in shaping domestic politics in member-countries and creating common denominators that have eliminated, as far as possible, domestic political thought, courage and character.

In Britain's Eastleigh by-election, two parties were clearly shown at odds with that political uniformity. The more extreme of these, UKIP, came close to winning on a single issue ticket, that of leaving Europe. The Conservative Party has vainly attempted to build on a much more complex policy that involves keeping Britain in the EU but escaping from the stranglehold of euro-regulations that do not work.

As Terry Smith wrote in 'The Guardian' last Saturday: "Binding ourselves to the EU is like trying to run a race with a ball and chain, as we are forced to import the labour practices and business regulation of countries that are the losers in global competitiveness."

This, combined with other regulatory changes in the EU, is what has made all political parties virtually identical.

In Britain, the choice has emerged more clearly since last Thursday, between UKIP and the Conservatives.

Despite the Conservatives' poor performance at Eastleigh, there has been constraint about blaming Mr Cameron and a recognition of his dilemma over a far-right party that is growing in strength and is undermining the more difficult, more complex political set of objectives laid out in his speech announcing a European Referendum.

Changed thinking is emerging in Britain and will affect us through Northern Ireland and through the challenges Europe will face as it continues to grapple with other crisis points, like Italy.

Former commission president Romano Prodi said this in the wake of the Italian election: "Honestly, I don't understand why Europe does not now choose a different economic policy. Look – even Germany is not growing. Europe is becoming a black spot in the world. Germany has a fantastic surplus in its balance of trade. Why don't they put some fuel in the locomotive?"

It is a good question we should all ask and ponder on.