William Hague’s statement on an audit of EU powers today marks the end of a little run of developments in Conservative policy on the EU, as well as presaged the opening of a new round of what we might hopefully call ‘debate’ on the subject.
On Tuesday, the Fresh Start Group published its long-trailed ‘Green Paper’ on renegotiatingUK membership. The paper itself represents one of the most developed pieces of research that has been conducted by a sceptic group, with an extensive discussion of options set out with a traffic light coding, to be taken to a next stage of deliberation.
The document is typical of the current face of eurosceptic approaches in the UK. Rather than framing the debate as being about “In versus out”, it instead talks about the need to renegotiate membership, because (in the words of George Eustice on the PM programme that same day):
“Europe is at a crossroads – part of the problem we have at the moment is that the euro is failing and the process of European integration is starting to throw up all sorts of problems and it’s brought the EU to the brink and I think it’s very important therefore that […] we also get our approach on this particular issue right.”
This sounds rather reasonable and pragmatic, until one reads the document. Of the 70+ suggestions, all of the green (‘measures that can be achieved without renegotiation’) are effectively current UK policy in any case; most of the yellow (‘measures required renegotiation’) appear effectively impossible, with repeated notes that such discussions have previously encountered deep resistance from other member states; and the red (‘unilateral breaking of treaty obligations’) are all illegal under public international law. In short, none of them seem to be options.
Fresh Start’s plan is that following debate on their Green Paper, they produce a White Paper with a definitive list, which they will then lobby the government to pursue, with a referendum on the final outcome of renegotiations. But the discussion of the Green Paper will be on the basis solely of comments from “Conservative MPs, Peers and MEPs”, i.e. a purely partisan debate. The only point where the public are permitted to have a say is after everything is done and dusted, a position which jars with the long push from eurosceptics to ‘give the people a say.’
Moreover, despite the long discussion of options, there is hardly anything on why other member states should give anything to the UK. Mention is made in passing of the value of access to the UKeconomy and to the potential leverage offered by the need for treaty reform on economic governance, but with no substance to back that up. As I have discussed before, theUK has squandered any opportunity to engage positively with the eurozone crisis, and it is hard to see how turning up inBrussels with Fresh Start’s ‘shopping list’ of demands would improve that.
The Tory leadership finds itself in a difficult position, with a rebellious backbench that increasingly sees the LibDems as forcing them to compromise on fundamental issues (the EU, Lords reform, etc.). By contrast, Cameron, Osborne and Hague have to manage an on-going relationship with other European capitals and retain some control over their party.
Hague in particular is caught on the horns of a dilemma. He wrote a foreword the Green Paper, even if one can hear the deep ambivalence in phrases such as:
“I congratulate the Fresh Start Project and all its contributors on the publication of this Green Paper, which does just that. It is a considerable piece of work with many interesting ideas that deserves and will receive proper consideration.”
In announcing a comprehensive audit of EU powers, Hague presumably hopes to park this particular thrust from a group that contains several of the most vociferous voices on the EU in the party. Coming just before the recess and with a planned completion date of 2014, this is not been given a top priority: no one looks particularly keen to rush into a negotiating room. The eurosceptic camp will know this and will want to push the issue soon, while they feel that they have leverage, so this is a dog that will continue to be deprived any sleep.
In his PM interview, Eustice was asked whether he was ‘banging on about Europe’ (as per Cameron’s 2006 speech), to which he gave a telling reply:
“I don’t think we are, because what we are saying here – and I’m someone who thinks that there are many more important issues to the public, like the economy – that’s number one, that’s got to be our focus – there are issues like welfare reform and education, which are very high priorities for this government, and rightly so […] Now I don’t think that means banging on about Europe but it does mean having the right position on Europe” (emphasis added)
As we have seen, there is plenty of debate about those other issues and those debates have shown that we don’t necessarily have ‘the right position’ on any of them. However, it’s only ‘Europe’ that is getting this treatment: The Tories’ internal conflict on the EU continues.
Since writing the post, I’ve been able to talk with FCO officials, who stressed the Hague’s audit (full details here) was solely about raising knowledge of the situation, to allow all involved to make more informed contributions. In addition, as Hague was at pains to underline in the Commons, the audit does not presuppose any particular course of action, nor any commitment to renegotiation, etc. These are potentially very positive contributions to what has been a low standard of debate for too long. The only question is how long the government can keep its impartiality on the process.