Europe: the third rail

By Owen Pugh

The third rail is the one they say never to touch when crossing a railway line. That’s because it’s the one electrified one and, if you touch it, it’ll send 1200 volts shooting through your body – which will rapidly fry you from the inside out. Basically the message is: “Avoid at all costs.”

UK politics can be a bit like that the railways sometimes. You wait ages for a policy from the main parties and suddenly they all turn up at once – usually in the run-up to an election year.

We’ve been waiting almost four years for significant policy announcements from either the government or the opposition. And here we are in 2014 (an EU election year), only one year from the 2015 General Election, and suddenly there’s a stream of government policy on Europe, immigration, jobs, energy and infrastructure. The policies from the opposition are still lacking (maybe they missed their train?).

Getting back on track and leaving trains aside, the longstanding rift that has reemerged in the Conservative party over the EU has exposed Europe as the third rail. Indecision, infighting and intrigue undermined the government of the great Margaret Thatcher and paralysed that of John Major. Now it threatens to do the same to the coalition government under David Cameron.

Only last week, a letter was signed (allegedly) by 95 Conservative MPs calling for the Prime Minister to grant Parliament the power to veto laws from the EU. Some of the alleged signatories have since rescinded their names from the letter.

All of this while a bill that will promise a referendum on the EU in 2017 is in the process of clearing its first hurdle in the Lords. Let us also not forget that David Cameron is yet to conduct renegotiations on behalf of the UK which will attempt to claw back powers from the EU, a move broadly supported by European allies in Germany and the Nordic states.

The raft of measures being announced by the government certainly panders to Eurosceptic demands for the UK to withdraw from the EU, or at the least to get a better deal from it. However, the letter has undermined these actions. Any move against the EU that Cameron now takes will make him appear not as a statesman campaigning on behalf of the British people but rather as a puppet dancing to the tune of his vocally Eurosceptic party members.

Cameron is being sent into a fist fight with an arm tied behind his back because these MPs have no trust in their PM and are not willing to believe that he may achieve the impossible. Strange, since he has already masterminded the greatest economic recovery in living memory which has seen more people in work than ever before; the lowest inflation in four years and the emergence of the strongest economy in the Western world which may be set to overtake the powerhouse that is Germany by 2030. All apparently impossible tasks when viewed from the wreckage of 2010 left by Labour.

It is understandable that many within the party ranks may want the government to sound more decisive on the EU given the sudden rise of support for UKIP which saw them gain their largest number of seats at the local elections in 2013. However, such elections have often been seen as little more than a political barometer to which the Conservatives have responded with their EU referendum bill amongst other measures coinciding with the halving of UKIP support in successive national polls.

It has been oft noted that ‘There is nothing to fear except fear itself.’ Rather than fear UKIP, let us dismantle their falsehoods and get the vote out in the EU elections. We cannot fix the EU if we do not have a say in it and how will that help one of our largest trading blocs? Let us tackle the third rail once and for all, converting it instead into a safer and more beneficial cable supporting the smooth running of the Conservative party policy train.