LILICO Andrew looking down

Andrew Lilico is an economist and political writer.

There’s a rather odd discussion going on at the moment. The Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond gave an interview to the Financial Times on May 14th which was widely written up as suggesting the UK would not necessarily be seeking treaty change (though that’s not actually what he said). The German social democrat Martin Schultzsaid “we should not discuss about treaty change”. And various other analyses have speculated about what could be achieved without treaty change.

Let’s be brutally clear: what the British must be after in these negotiations is, by definition, treaty change or an equivalent to it. What the British government object to concerns the way the treaties have determined decisions are made within the EU, the powers the treaties have given to the EU, the nature of the EU as defined by the treaties, and the future goals the treaties sets for the EU. The Conservative Party, which is now the majority governing party in the UK, voted against the last three EU treaties and ran at the last four General Elections promising to repatriate powers given to the EU in the treaties.

Any “renegotiation” that worked within the existing treaties would simply be a use of the existing EU decision-making machinery to produce different EU policies. But it isn’t the EU’s policy on X or Y which the Conservatives most object to; it’s the fact that on X and Y the EU has the power to make policy. Saying we can renegotiate with the EU but can’t change the treaties would be exactly like saying we wanted to renegotiate the border between France and Belgium but would only to so to the extent that that didn’t change the existing border.

What Philip Hammond actually said was that the British people do not regard treaty change as an end in itself. In a sense he’s right about that. In border negotiations with France, the ultimate objective for Belgium wouldn’t be “moving the border”; it would be how much land and which land Belgium has and France has. Those that want Britain’s position within the EU renegotiated don’t care about treaty change. What they care about is what powers Britain has and the EU has, what kind of a thing the EU is, what goals the EU has and how Britain is included in those, and how the EU takes decisions and Britain’s involvement in those decisions. Since all of those things are defined by treaties, then in order to change them we have to change treaties, but the treaty change isn’t the end in itself. It’s merely an essential part of achieving the things we do want to achieve.

Some say the renegotiation will have to proceed by asking for things that don’t involve treaty change because there’s no chance of the rest of the EU agreeing to treaty change or of being able to implement it even if it agreed. But that’s just another way of saying: the renegotiation you want will fail; so ask for something else. I think there’s very little chance of the EU, any more, being able to agree to the sorts of changes Britain requires (I think the last realistic opportunity we had of achieving what we needed was 2010). But if we don’t even ask, we definitely won’t get.

If the Conservative Party, having promised the repatriation of powers at four General Elections in a row, having voted against the last three treaties and now armed with a Parliamentary majority, did not even try to renegotiate (i.e. to seek changes that would, by their nature, require treaty change) its past “Euroscepticism” would be seen as empty posturing.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s much risk of that. I think much of what Cameron is reported as asking for will definitely require treaty change and he won’t get it. At that point there must be a pretty good chance he will come back and say: “I tried, but now it’s time to leave.”

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