The European Union threatens to tear itself apart in the battle over the Treaty of Lisbon, as Ireland passes on the mantle of “the least ambitious program” to the Czech Republic and the UK. Owen Thomas studies the danger of the Conservative Party’s desire to hold the EU back but argues that the EU should work with, not against, those tendencies rather than push towards a two-speed Europe and calls for wider debate.

Underlying most of the conservative party conference was a nagging feeling that we weren’t being given the full story. Boris came close, but was quickly hushed. Interviewers such as Andrew Neil and Jeremy Paxman pushed David Cameron for details but saw their attempts dodged. I am, of course, referring to the Irish ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon and the following shift of attention onto the Czech President and onto David Cameron, the Prime Minister-in-waiting.

            For an opposition party, which seems to be in as strong a position as an opposition has been in the UK for at least twelve years, to be so unwilling to discuss the Treaty and the EU in general betrays either indecisiveness, division or, I suspect, both. However, while indecision rules among the incoherent strategy of a party petrified of losing an election from such a powerful position, the result has played into the hands of those rank and file Tory euro-sceptic members. David Cameron, by failing to send out a clear message on his government’s future attitude to Europe, has managed to create uncertainty over the institution’s future and strengthen those that wish to hold it back.

            At this stage it seems appropriate to introduce Arild Underdal’s ‘law of the least ambitious program’ that states an institution’s reform will be slowed to the speed the least ambitious member desires. In the case of the EU at the moment, Ireland, the previous ‘least ambitious program’, has taken a step forward but David Cameron’s alliance with the Czech President has ensured the UK has taken on the mantle of least ambitious program. The arguments for and against this position are extensive and this is not yet the place to address these. However, the threat of these least ambitious programs splitting the EU is one threat too strong to ignore.

            What would become of Europe and the UK if a two speed EU-style institution is formed as Europhiles despair of the non-Eurozone’s Eurosceptism and poor economic recovery? It is a change perhaps too dramatic to study here but the danger is real, and a future Conservative government of the UK threatening to delay ratification of what is essentially a run-of-the-mill reforming treaty brings it closer. Economic recovery and international relations are just two areas that could see major damage, while the UK’s relationship with NATO, European Security operations in the Balkans and, vitally, with the US would all be appallingly harmed.

            Euro-scepticism is a trait that will always find a place in British politics, but the danger of where it could lead should be recognised. Arild Underdal’s law should be respected. There will always be a least ambitious program, and the UK may well be it, but this should not lead to a split or a two-speed EU. The answer is openness and debate. The conference season has passed without any meaningful debate on the major international institution affecting the lives of Europeans, despite the Mayor of London’s best efforts. Europe-wide debate on the EU’s future would not only help to address the scepticism rife in areas of Europe but also endow the EU with the sense of community that is missing. The Conservative Party is not alone in failing to address this. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, knowing the EU is unpopular, both avoided identifying themselves too strongly with it. But in six months time, with the economy perhaps struggling to match the recovery seen in France and Germany, what will be our attitude then? A party that steals a march on the EU debate, rather than hiding behind uncertainty and the Czech President’s tendency to pontificate, and shows bravery as well as commitment to the EU’s mission to unite rather than divide may well be rewarded at the ballot box.