The UK's main political parties begin to scratch their old itches on Europe again - the budget, the rebate, subsidiarity, and the classic debate on whether we should be in or out of the EU. A painful defeat for David Cameron by an unholy alliance of Tory backbenchers and the Labour opposition in a vote on whether to freeze or cut the EU budget, was followed by a slew of criticism for Ed Miliband and Ed Balls' political opportunism, jumping into the temporarily vacated EU bashing territory ,and pushing for a cut for the next financial perspective. And last week, Nick Clegg took to the floor at Chatham House to try to defend his personal and party pro-european credentials, despite being part of a coalition that is sending out many signals to the contrary with all its fighting talk of pulling out of many Justice and Home Affairs treaty chapters altogether.
Amid all this UK in Europe cacophony, the government-wide "Balance of Competences Review" is also quietly kicking off along Whitehall. This is quite a different sort of beast to the political point scoring that we are currently seeing down the road in the Houses of Parliament: a rigorous process, expected to last until 2014 and publish its findings as it goes, to explore exactly how EU membership advances the UK national interest. It would certainly be nice to have some substance on both sides of the argument that has been raging through the corridors at Westminster for years on 'what Europe has ever done for us' (to paraphrase one of the all time greatest cultural exports from the UK - Monty Python.)
So far, so good, with regard to the intentions of this exercise. But of course, at such a delicate moment, when the UK's reputation as a committed partner is plumbing new depths around the capitals of Europe as a result of its half hearted response to the financial and political crisis that the EU is facing, even the most well-meaning of review exercises is not without its risks. While UK officials currently perceive interest and curiosity in the findings of this process from their colleagues in Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Rome (and perhaps more keenly in Copenhagen and Stockholm), this could rapidly turn to hostility if the communications are badly handled about why we are doing this and where it might lead. This risk more than doubles if it is not coupled with at least some effort at a charm offensive on the European stage to reassure our friends on the continent that this is not just a question of laying carpet on the path towards the UK's exit so that we can slip out at some point with less fuss. And unfortunately, the charm component seems to be sadly lacking in the UK's preparations for appearances at Council and Summit meetings at the moment.
Certainly, we should have a conversation about where the UK's interest has been advanced by being part of the European club. If well led, this conversation is likely to open a few eyes on both sides of the Channel and unearth a few surprises. But this will only work properly if those of us who believe that the role of an active, committed, but challenging player in the great European game is the right one for Britain, contribute our evidence with the same vigour as those who prefer that we go it alone. So sharpen your pencils everyone and get ready to argue the case.
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