Denis MacShane: Irish verdict strands the Europhobes in no man's land

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By Denis Macshane

IRELAND has spoken. Europe is back in business. The fall-out from the Irish referendum is already shaking British politics. Hard-line Tories who admired the Irish when first they said No are now stumped by the huge Irish Yes. UKIP poured money into the No campaign, distributing lurid propaganda to all households in Ireland. As so often in the past, the Irish did not take kindly to superior Brits telling them how to vote.

Will the Czechs now check-mate Lisbon? Vaclav Klaus, the president of the Czech Republic, has two firm beliefs. First, global warming is a myth. Second, the EU is a bad thing. He has yet to put his signature to the treaty. But the Czech Parliament has approved it and his own party supports Lisbon. So the treaty is likely to become law.

For pro-Europeans, there is a palpable sigh of relief. For Europhobes, a fury of frustration. Both need a sense of proportion. Even had the Irish voted No, the EU would have continued as before. The biggest transfer of power or sharing of sovereignty happened under Margaret Thatcher with the Single European Act, and under John Major with the Maastricht Treaty.

John Redwood famously said that the 1998 Treaty of Amsterdam - anyone remember that one? - signalled the end of Britain's independence. We are still here. William Hague famously announced in 2001 that if the pro-EU Labour government was returned Britain "would become a foreign land". Yorkshire remains Yorkshire.

This hyperbole actually does the Eurosceptic camp a disservice. There are problems with Europe that need fixing. But the "Just Say No" line of UKIP, the BNP, and the Better Off Out Conservatives headed by the Shipley MP, Philip Davies, leaves Britain without influence or friends in Europe.

While Gordon Brown, who insisted on a parliamentary ratification of Lisbon can take some pleasure in the Irish Yes, the Conservatives have a major problem. Will David Cameron now honour his pledge to have a referendum? But on what? Once a treaty is ratified, it becomes law between the signatory parties.

If David Cameron wants to undo the treaty, it means Britain pulling out of the EU. He can seek to renegotiate as much as he likes. But 26 other nations also have problems with Lisbon and have had to swallow difficult, messy compromises. They will give Britain short shrift if a Prime Minister Cameron comes along and asks for a new treaty.

The anti-American Left and anti-European Right are combining in their dislike of Tony Blair as a possible candidate for the new post of President of the European Union Council. In France, Left-wing intellectuals who hate Blair over the Iraq war are denouncing him. In Britain, William Hague heads the Stop Blair campaign. In the summer, David Cameron wisely let it be known that he was relaxed about a President Blair. Hague takes a different line and has even started threatening Europe's leaders with dire consequences if they opt for Blair, which is far from a certainty.

Cameron has burnt his bridges with the Conservatives' sister parties in Europe by creating his new alliance with hard-line nationalist Right-wingers from Poland and Latvia. The newly-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel has withdrawn her party's representative in London in dismay at Cameron's embrace of anti-German rightist politicians in East Europe some with dubious records on Jewish massacres in the Second World War.

So William Hague's boorish bluster telling Mrs Merkel and other EU leaders to reject Tony Blair is likely to fall on deaf ears. The Lisbon Treaty does not alter the fact that the EU remains a grouping of sovereign nation states. The total income of the EU is one per cent of the combined national incomes of 27 member states. The other 99 per cent is earned, spent, taxed or allocated according to national preferences. The Conservatives have been convulsed by Europe for two decades ever since Mrs Thatcher said "No, No, No" to Brussels.

Cameron has to decide whether to allow those convulsions to dominate his party. If he appeases the UKIP and BNP anti-European vote he will need to offer the red meat of a referendum heading towards withdrawal. If he does that, will business leaders want to see Britain excluded from the single market and London losing all influence in shaping trade and labour market rules in Europe?

In the 19th century, and again and again in the 20th century, what happened in Ireland caused convulsions in British politics. Once again, the Irish have inserted themselves into British politics by saying Yes to Europe. After an unhappy end to Labour's conference Gordon Brown can smile as his opponents wriggle on the Irish Yes. What will David Cameron's response be?

Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.