William Hague’s problem

A speech on Europe today by Conservative shadow foreign secretary William Hague – you can read it here.

His speech in the House of Commons at the opening of the ratification debase for the Lisbon Treaty was very good – you can read it here, (about half-way down the page), or watch the best bit of it here – but that was because he could be simply critical and party political. Ask him to be positive – what is he for, not what is he against – and things become a bit more mysterious.

In his speech today, he repeated the objections to the Lisbon treaty with which we are familiar by now, but the absence of a concrete alternative undermines his case.

Rejecting the treaty, he says, “would … be an opportunity for Europe to think again, put institutional questions to one side and get on with the work our voters want us to focus on.” Would it?

We would be stuck with the institutions of the Nice treaty. Michael Howard, when he was Conservative leader, said that the treaty “purports to lay the ground for enlargement but fails to do so”. The Conservative manifesto in 2004 said that rejection of the constitutional treaty would force Europe “to confront its failings”. Yet now, William Hague says that institutional questions should be put to one side. Have the Conservatives changed their mind about the Nice treaty?

The current treaty has been six years in the making: the current phase of institutional reform was kicked off by the Laeken declaration in December 2001. Abandoning it now would either leave us with the Nice treaty – which the Tories always opposed – or would reopen all the various discussions we have lived through in recent years.

William Hague claims that he wants to “free Europe’s leaders from the prospect of Eurocratic turf wars to deal with the real challenges Europe faces today.” But his policy would actually lead to more institutional discussion, not less.

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