Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Referendum welcome but Cameron's EU strategy risks embarrassment of failure

The national debate on Britain's future relationship with the European Union must step up a gear following David Cameron's speech this morning.

While doubts remain over whether the Prime Minister will both be in office and able to deliver renegotiation and a referendum after the next election, the proposition that there will be a definitive test of public opinion on EU membership within the next few years cannot be dismissed.

Pro-democracy campaigners must now step up their efforts to rebut the disingenuous arguments being made by groups such as Business for New Europe, the Centre for British Influence in Europe, the European Movement and others, particularly in relation to trade, jobs and foreign inward investment.

One example is the scaremongering by the pro-Brussels lobby that, if the UK were to decouple from political centralisation, we would be locked out of the EU Single Market, have to pay high trade tariffs and, as a consequence, three million jobs would be put at risk.

In reality, especially given the trade surplus the EU enjoys with the UK, it's absurd to imagine that Britain could not negotiate free access to the Single Market in the same way as Switzerland, Norway and many other non-EU countries. 

Responding to the Prime Minister's speech, Democracy Movement director Stuart Coster commented:

"David Cameron's commitment today to an in/out EU referendum in 2017 is a welcome step forward.
"However, securing significant powers back from the EU via negotiation from within simply isn't feasible because it would require the agreement of 26 other member governments who show no signs of subscribing to David Cameron's vision of the EU's future.

"The true choice is whether to be in today's EU lock, stock and barrel, or to seek the new, more flexible, more democratic relationship David Cameron rhetorically supports by employing Article 50 of the EU treaty and notifying Brussels that we plan to exit the EU's structures.

"Holding out the prospect of something other than a 'status-quo-or-go' EU referendum risks the Prime Minister having to admit embarrassing failure."

"The most indefensible referendum position is sadly the one Labour leader Ed Miliband is adopting: that people shouldn't even be permitted to vote on Britain's relationship with the EU in case we vote to leave. The words of someone who has neither faith in his case for EU membership nor respect for democracy."

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

How credible will David Cameron's EU speech be?

In advance of the Prime Minister's long-awaited EU speech tomorrow morning, the DM has an article today on Public Service Europe looking at the credibility of his EU policy

The article as published is reproduced below:


This Wednesday, David Cameron is to finally deliver his much-anticipated speech setting out his position on the renegotiation of some of the European Union's powers, bringing them back to Westminster and on holding a referendum. The prospect of the British prime minister making a statement about the United Kingdom's relationship with the EU has sparked a flurry of comment about whether or not Britain should renegotiate its membership of the union and, if so, which powers the country should seek back.

Cameron's every word is likely to be pored over by pressure groups on both sides of the debate and, not least, by a large number of his own backbenchers. They are looking for a clear indication that the Conservative Party leader shares their concerns about the EU's powers and will give them a popular referendum pledge with which to fight the next election. But there is one question it seems certain that the speech will not answer and, unfortunately, it is the question on which the entire credibility of Cameron's EU policy and the prospect of a referendum depend.

Beyond the desirability of renegotiation, which has so far been the main focus of debate, how feasible is it that Cameron will secure the necessary agreement of other member states to a renegotiation and a return of European powers from Brussels to Westminster? If the prime minister intends to make a referendum pledge dependent on his view of a positive outcome from such discussions, few will take seriously the idea that they will get the chance to give 'fresh consent' to Britain's links with Brussels - unless the process by which negotiations will take place is made clear.

There are only three methods by which treaty amendment discussions can be launched and Cameron's difficulty is that two of them require the cooperation of the 26 fellow member states. The prospects of this happening are looking increasingly bleak. In recent weeks, prominent figures including Ireland's Deputy Prime Minister Eamon Gilmore, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti have lined up to denounce the idea that any single country should be permitted to revise its membership of the EU.

French President Francois Hollande's comments after December's meeting of the European Council summed up the mood. "I think the treaties are there to be abided by," he said. "Europe isn't a Europe where competences could be withdrawn." Where, in this, does Cameron believe lies the support he needs to negotiate, never mind secure agreement to, a return of powers to Westminster?

The method the prime minister and his supporters tend to cite is that forthcoming negotiations over moves towards EU 'fiscal union' should be used to try to broaden discussions - to giving the UK opt-outs from other areas of the treaty. The EU, they say, "is changing" and Britain should take its chance to put its own changes on the table.

While there will undoubtedly soon be discussions, mainly centred on the eurozone, about passing further budgetary sovereignty to Brussels - since other EU members could dismiss his proposals as irrelevant, this strategy would involve Cameron having to play extreme hardball with the EU. He would have to refuse to approve changes purportedly designed to ensure the euro's survival, until UK opt-outs were granted.

As well as being politically very dramatic and therefore unlikely, this would leave the UK open to charges of both blackmail and hypocrisy; since the British government has said that it supports greater fiscal union for the eurozone countries in order to reduce the effects of euro instability on the UK economy. The second method is for the government to invoke Article 48 of the EU treaty. This opens a convoluted process to revise the treaty involving a succession of conventions and conferences at the end of which other European governments and institutions are likely, also, to collectively reject any repatriation proposal.

That leaves the third method, which is the only way to guarantee that discussions about the EU's powers cannot simply be dismissed by other European leaders and, therefore, is the only way that Britain can underpin the credibility of Cameron's EU strategy. If he hopes on Wednesday to dodge the accusation that he is seeking merely to introduce more delay and distraction into the EU debate, rather than respond to clear public concerns about the union's powers, he must make clear that he plans to employ Article 50 of the EU treaty.

Only by giving notification that the UK intends to decouple itself from the EU's growing political centralisation can the PM convince his peers that he is serious about achieving change. And only then can the country focus on a necessary debate about how best to shape future relations with our European neighbours - such that they meet the needs of business, retain the benefits of cultural exchange but also, crucially, respect democracy and national diversity.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

EU renegotiation is not feasible from within

This Friday, the Prime Minister is expected to make a speech setting out his position on returning some decisions from Brussels to Westminster and on holding a referendum on the outcome.

Much of the recent debate that has been provoked by the prospect of this speech has been about whether or not Britain should renegotiate its membership of the EU and, if so, which powers we should seek back.

No attention whatsoever has been paid by mainstream commentators to the methods by which any renegotiation could occur.

Essentially, a phony debate has been conducted, no doubt encouraged by Number 10, about the desirability of renegotiation and not its feasibility. But the PM's evident interest in 'substance' over 'process' in fact highlights the vulnerability of his EU policy.

Because all the potential methods of initiating a discussion with the EU about the balance of powers between Westminster and Brussels - short of informing the EU that the UK is leaving - are highly unlikely to deliver a formal negotiation, nevermind agreement.

The credibility of David Cameron's forthcoming speech, and the likelihood of any referendum, depend entirely on the Prime Minister setting out a feasible method of securing a renegotiation.

Three methods

There are only three methods by which David Cameron can attempt to initiate discussion about a return of powers from the EU to Britain.

1. Use forthcoming negotiations over the proposed EU 'fiscal union' treaty to try to secure UK opt-outs from other areas of the treaty. This is the method David Cameron and other supporters of renegotiation tend to cite. But there are many problems with this strategy.

First, because other member states could easily dismiss any attempt to broaden the negotiations beyond proposed treaty changes, it would involve playing extreme hardball with the EU by refusing the approve changes designed to secure the future of the euro until UK opt-outs were granted. As well as being politically dramatic - a potential tactic that has already been described as 'blackmail' by the German government - this would leave David Cameron open to charges of hypocrisy, since the government has said that it supports greater fiscal union for the eurozone countries in order to reduce the effects of its instability on the UK economy.

It is not credible relative to his position on the eurozone, politically likely nor desirable for Britain's relations with other European countries, for the Prime Minister to threaten to withhold his consent from the new treaty unless agreement is reached on a return of powers to Britain.

2. Invoke Article 48 of the EU treaty, which opens a convoluted process to revise the treaty on a proposal from a member government, the Commission or the European Parliament. But there are many hurdles in this process that the government is unlikely to overcome. Such a proposal must first achieve majority support within the European Council. Then, the proposed amendments must be approved by a Convention drawn from representatives of all the member states governments and their national parliaments, the European Parliament and the Commission. The EU official chairing this body will be responsible for determining the "consensus" opinion of the Convention on the proposed amendments. Formal votes will not be taken. Once this has concluded its deliberations, a conference of representatives of the member countries will decide finally what amendments should be made to the EU treaty.

3. If this fails, the only other option is for a government to invoke
Article 50 of the treaty.
This covers the arrangements for arriving at a new relationship between a member country wishing to leave the EU and the European Council, the body on which the other political heads of state are represented. Given that David Cameron says he does not support Britain leaving the EU this is clearly not an option he would consider viable. But it is the only method by which a significant renegotiation can be guaranteed.

Who will agree?

Prominent figures across Europe have already denounced the idea that Britain should be permitted to renegotiate its membership of the EU.

Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Eamon Gilmore, has said that there cannot be "different forms of membership… There cannot be flexibility on the core conditions. You cannot have a European Union if you end up with 27 different forms of membership."

The Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, has already gone on record as saying to David Cameron: "Please don't expect us to help you wreck or paralyse the EU."

Speaking after December's meeting of the European Council, French President Francois Hollande indicated his opposition to repatriating EU powers, saying: "When a country makes a commitment, generally, it’s for life. So I think the treaties are there to be abided by. And so far I haven’t heard Mr Cameron at a European Council asking to opt out of certain competences ... Europe isn’t a Europe where competences could be withdrawn."

The Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti said that, rather than renegotiate, Britain must be asked the fundamental question: "Do you want to remain in the European Union?"

And President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, said: "If every member state were able to cherry-pick those parts of existing policies that they most like, and opt out of those they least like, the union in general, and the single market in particular, would soon unravel."

Delay, distraction?

Where, in this, does David Cameron believe lies the support he needs to secure agreement to British

The unfeasibility of renegotiation makes the PM's strategy look far more like delay and distraction than a response to public concerns about the EU's powers.

This Friday, the mainstream media must focus on exposing the feeble foundations of his EU policy. If David Cameron is serious about renegotiation, he must first notify the EU that Britain will leave. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

DM letter: Pryce so wrong on the EU

The DM has a letter in today's Evening Standard in response to a comment piece published yesterday by the economist Vicky Pryce.

In her article, Pryce repeated a number of claims and myths about the impact of the EU, some so detached from reality it's hard to imagine from where they can possibly have emerged, beyond simply someone's fevered imagination.

The full version of the DM's response is reproduced below:


Dear Sir,

No wonder Vicky Pryce thinks this is no time to seek a new deal with the EU (Comment, 14 January). Her understanding of the EU's impact is wrong in every key respect.

She says "85% percent of our budget contribution comes back to the UK", but Treasury figures for 2010-11 show the figure is just over 57% - a net cost of £8.8bn that year alone. Pryce also says "regulations are mostly national", despite a House of Commons Library study from October 2010 showing in fact just over half of new laws now have their origins in Brussels.

Her concern about the EU market becoming more difficult to access surely makes the highly unlikely assumption that Britain could not achieve a free trade agreement as part of any new relationship with the EU - a deal that our trade deficit with the EU shows would be in the interests of EU businesses far more than that of UK plc. 

Overcoming ignorance about the EU through a proper national debate on the basis of facts and giving us all the chance to make an informed decision about Britain's best path to prosperity in the 21st century is exactly why David Cameron must promise to hold an EU referendum.

Yours faithfully,


Pryce's article comes on the back of a recent propaganda onslaught by political and business elites seeking not only to intimidate the Prime Minister from seeking any change in Britain's relationship with the EU to bring decisions back to Westminster, but also to deny the rest of us a real choice about Britain's future and how we are governed.

In his speech on Friday, David Cameron 
is expected to announce an intention to renegotiate aspects of the EU's powers and hold a referendum on the outcome sometime after the next general election (IF there is a new 'fiscal union' treaty, IF other countries agree to renegotiate, IF they agree to hand back EU powers, and IF he wins the 2015 election outright).

Despite the likely dependence of such a pledge on a range of improbable developments, the temperature of the EU debate is nevertheless rising. The last few weeks have seen the opening skirmishes of a referendum battle, which David Cameron's speech on Friday may well exacerbate over the coming months and years into full political war about the best course for Britain's democracy and future prosperity.