Column published in the Newcastle Journal, 8 March 2008.
THERE was a time when Britain’s relationship with Europe seemed to be a defining issue in domestic politics, one of the crucial dividing lines that differentiated the two main parties from eachother.
In the early 1970s, the Tories led by Edward Heath were in the main a pro-European party, taking Britain into the then Common Market in 1973 against considerable odds.
Labour, in those days, was the more Eurosceptic party, voting against EEC entry in 1973 and, ten years later, actually fighting its "suicide note" election on a policy of withdrawal from the community.
Then, during the Thatcher-Major years, the two parties gradually swapped positions, with the Tories becoming increasingly hostile to Brussels while New Labour appeared enthusiastically to embrace it.
Such an analysis, however, runs only skin deep. The truth is that the two parties were never really united in their approach to the European issue, and that holds as true today as it ever did.
It is a matter of historical fact, after all, that Mr Heath only managed to overcome his own anti-European rebels in '73 with the help of Labour's pro-European rebels led by Roy Jenkins.
That pro-European Labour faction eventually split off from the party to form the SDP, initially under Mr Jenkins' leadership, which in turn gave rise to the Liberal Democrats.
But, as this week's events have shown, there are even a few Eurosceptics in that party too, though they tend to be concentrated down in its South-Westerly fringes.
Europe, then, is less the crucial dividing line in British politics, more the issue on which every major political party itself is internally divided.
Or as they used to say about the economic disparities between the English regions, the differences within the parties over Europe are at least as great as the differences between them.
Only Europe could see Dennis Skinner making common cause with Bill Cash – or to use a more local example, Ronnie Campbell in the same voting lobby as Peter Atkinson.
And only Europe could see Ken Clarke defying his party to stand shoulder to shoulder with Gordon Brown – a man he despises for having taken the credit for his work as Chancellor in the 1990s.
The point at issue this week was whether we should hold a referendum on the infamous EU Reform Treaty – regarded by its opponents as the European Constitution by another name.
Some have tried to dress it up as an argument about “democracy” and whether people, rather than politicians, should ultimately take these sorts of decisions - but don’t be fooled.
With very few exceptions, the people who wanted a referendum were those who think the EU already has too much power and don’t want to see its tentacles extending further into our national life.
By contrast, the people who didn’t want one were by and large those who are comfortable with the European project and happy for the EU to have its own president and foreign minister.
Does any of it actually matter any more? Wasn’t the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU settled irrevocably with the original referendum back in 1975?
And with joining the Euro now ruled out for the foreseeable future, haven’t other issues such as health, education, tax, crime and climate change risen to the top of the political agenda instead?
Well, yes. But there are, to my mind, two sets of circumstances which could see Britain’s relationship with Europe plunged firmly back in the spotlight.
While the first of these is merely a personality issue, the other concerns one of the most difficult challenges facing Britain as a nation and goes to the heart of our self-identity.
The first of these scenarios is one in which Tony Blair becomes the EU’s first executive president, a post being specifically created by the Reform Treaty approved by the Commons this week.
Unless the Irish block the Treaty in their own referendum, it will now almost certainly come into being – but will the former Prime Minister and Sedgefield MP get the job?
French leader Nicolas Sarkozy is enthusiastically in favour, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appears to be against – and Gordon Brown isn’t saying.
I suspect, however, that his private view of the prospect of his old rival making a dramatic return to the European political stage roughly approximates to “over my dead body.”
It is easy to see why. If Mr Blair is appointed, every subsequent clash between Britain and Brussels will be seen through the prism of the convoluted Blair-Brown relationship.
The Europe “story” will be back on the front pages – but this time reborn as pure political soap opera rather than dry-as-dust debates about qualified majority voting.
But even if Mr Blair is passed over, there is a second, more troubling scenario under which the European issue could flare up again, although it is not a particularly comfortable one for those of us of a generally pro-European liberal bent.
It is the question of how we reconcile our finite national resources with the continued influx of Eastern European immigrants who now have complete freedom of movement within the EU.
Last month, the government announced a strict new points system for those coming into the country from outside the EU including the need to sit an English test.
But as the Tories have pointed out, it will have virtually zero net effect on immigration because economic migration from within the EU is set to carry on increasing.
Ultimately, there are only two ways to resolve this conundrum – to get the EU to change its own rules, or, if it will not do so, to withdraw from the EU.
Somehow, I sense that the debate over Europe which has ebbed and flowed through British politics for the past 40 years is not quite done with yet.