John Stevens is a former Conservative Member of European Parliament who stood at the last general election as an independent candidate against John Bercow.
What will the Prime Minister do now, after the failure of his campaign to block Jean-Claude Juncker becoming President of the European Commission?
Some might say that having taken a stand, albeit rather belatedly, on the principle that granting the European Parliament the power of appointment to this post constitutes an historically significant – and for Britain quite unconscionable – shift towards federalism, he should press on, and seek to fight the next election, in the manner of Edward Heath in February 1974, on the question: “Who governs Britain?” What better platform could there be to squeeze UKIP back down to the low single figure level of support considered consistent with a Conservative majority? Perhaps this has been the method behind what so many continentals see as the madness of his recent diplomacy all along?
However, he must know then the chances of his getting the same answer as his luckless predecessor – “Not you, mate”, as Tony Crosland supposedly summarized that election – are high. Large sections of Conservative-inclined opinion do not want Britain to leave the EU. Larger sections still would be unsettled by the economic uncertainty and disruption that will surely progressively accrue as global markets come to focus on the risks of Britain actually doing so.
But equally, the Juncker debacle has clearly demonstrated that Cameron’s hopes of imitating the other protagonist of 1974, Harold Wilson, and seeing through a modest re-negotiation of our relationship with the EU, and then securing the approval of the British people in a referendum, are fantastic. There is no way now, in a Union increasingly dominated by the logic of the Eurozone, that we can hope to enjoy some special deal which would afford all the protection for our vital interests in the City, the labour market and so on of full membership without also accepting all its obligations, current and implied. We are, ultimately, either in, or out. If he, and all other Conservative MPs, and candidates, were therefore obliged to say now where they stood on this stark choice, the Party would shatter.
Can he still escape these fateful constraints? Perhaps. Assuming that he still believes Britain should remain in the EU, he should, I think, now concentrate on setting forward a reform agenda of his own which actually addresses some of the concerns that are fueling anti-EU sentiment here, but which would also have a chance of opening up the debate on the continent, whilst at the same time refuting the increasingly prevalent perception that we are on our way inevitably towards the exit. This might have four elements:
- First, the setting up of a European Border Agency, centrally funded, with its first head British, to ensure that immigration from outside the EU into all member states is strictly controlled on common principles to the highest standard. This would particularly apply to the highly stressed situation in the Mediterranean and on the EU’s south-eastern land borders. It would include a clamp-down on governments issuing their passports in a reckless and unprincipled manner to third country nationals.
- Second, the setting up of a free-standing European Competition Authority, with a legal status comparable to the ECB, based in Manchester, with the power to investigate and adjudicate on all barriers to free trade and competition within the EU internal market. It would take over, and enlarge upon, the anti-trust and merger supervision powers currently exercised by the Commission. It would concentrate especially on the way European regulation favours large corporations over their smaller rivals. This should be presented as a necessary response to the politicisation of the Commission as it comes more under democratic control from the Parliament.
- Third, the enhancement of the European pillar of NATO, by requiring all EU member states to join the alliance, and grouping them together in a proper European Defence Agency, responsible to the Council, to which all contribute an equal percentage of GDP. This should go hand in hand with a renewed commitment to the 2010 Anglo-French Defence Treaty, including co-operation on nuclear weapons systems renewal and shared constant at sea deterrence.
- Fourth, the securing of an agreement that the candidates of the main party groups for the Presidency of the European Commission at the next European Parliament elections, in 2019, should be selected exclusively by their respective members of national parliaments, in a secret ballot.
These are obviously merely short-hand suggestions. They would certainly shake things up, and allow him to recover the initiative – over there and here. Much hangs upon his next moves.