David Cameron’s much-vaunted commitment to reform the European Union has always been extremely light on detail. At first glance, this seems odd. Why announce a major policy with great fanfare, then spend two years dodging and refusing requests to spell out what you actually mean? But look a little closer and the reason for Cameron’s reticence becomes clear.
The reform plan has much more to do with trying to keep a lid on the hard-right Eurosceptics in his own party than it does with improving how the EU works for Britain. For the past few years, the strategy of his rightwing backbenchers has been to try to bounce him into making pledges that are either impossible or undesirable, so — when the pledges fail — they can argue that the EU is unreformable and we have to leave. The Tory eurosceptics are the new Trotskyists of the Conservative party, making impossibilist demands today so they can hold the party to ransom tomorrow.
A promise of future reform might have looked like a way for Cameron to kick the issue into the long grass, at least until after the general election. But for that dubious strategy to work, he had to stay vague about exactly what he was promising. If he allowed himself to be pinned down on the detail, it would become obvious that no proposal could ever meet the twin tests of being (a) achievable, and (b) satisfactory to his party’s rightwing, for whom only complete severance from our neighbours will ever be enough.
So how Cameron’s heart must have sunk when Andrew Marr pressed him to come clean last week. And his reply was rather strange. He named four headline areas.
First, he wants to amend the declaratory preamble to the treaties to remove the reference to an ‘ever-closer union’. But this is a red herring. The preamble is aspirational, with no legal weight. It makes no difference to anything we do at European or indeed national level. And yet to amend it would mean a whole new amending treaty, ratified by every single country. It would be maximum political effort for zero political reward.
Second, he wants to develop the so-called ‘yellow card’ procedure, which allows national parliaments to combine to block EU legislation. But this procedure has already been around for a full five years, and in that time it has been used just twice. The reason for this is that it is simply not an effective way to influence policy. National ministers can already block or amend any proposals when they come before the EU council.
Third, he wants guarantees that, as the eurozone integrates more tightly, Britain will not be left out in the cold. But there is no evidence of this happening. The only area where the eurozone might act as a caucus within the wider EU is in financial regulation, but ministers have already agreed to have a ‘double majority’ rule here, where a majority of both eurozone members and non-members must agree any new rules.
Finally, Cameron plays his supposedly Ukip-busting ace: he wants migration reforms. But blaming Europe here is stretching it. Most migrants in the United Kingdom are from outside the EU, so it is completely up to the UK to set the rules. Within the EU, there is a roughly equal balance between other EU citizens living here and Brits living elsewhere. All the evidence shows that EU migrants make a large net contribution to our exchequer, and they are already banned from coming here simply to claim benefits. Internal EU migration is nowhere near as big a problem as people like Farage — and therefore Cameron — want to pretend.
Put all this together and what do these four proposals amount to? A red herring, a damp squib, a counterfeit and a false prospectus. Hardly the stuff that statesmanship is made of — and hardly likely to satisfy the shrill demands of the Tory hard-right.
It is tragic that the debate about Europe in the UK has been reduced to debating such gimmicks.
The truth is that European reform is an ongoing process about policy, not a one-off symbolic event. The whole point of the EU is to be a non-stop negotiating forum, year in year out, on all the subjects where our interdependence makes it necessary to work together as neighbours. We can and do make changes to EU policy, and we do it every day.
So the kinds of changes we should fight for in the future — policy changes, not red herrings and political gambles — are very much up for grabs. There is a great swirling vacuum in the British debate about EU reform, and if Labour can fill it, we might just be able to turn the Europe issue to our advantage.
Richard Corbett MEP is deputy leader of the British Labour members of the European parliament. He tweets @RCorbettMEP
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