Bernard Jenkin is Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee and MP for Harwich.
The Prime Minister always makes a statement to Commons after an European Union summit. The UK position in the EU is at a critical point. This deserves some comment – even though today we will be preoccupied with the aftermath of the atrocities in Tunisia and France, and with what to do about ISIS.
Friday also saw the second ever largest ISIS massacre in Syria, in which 146 people were killed. Russia continues to fuel civil war in Ukraine without restraint. Political failure, extreme poverty, and the spread of terrorist extremism and conflict is driving tens of thousands of migrants to risk their lives to flee to our continent. It is events such as these which are shaping our world, and threatening the freedom, security and prosperity of every European, leaving the EU looking hopelessly self-absorbed.
The EU is now facing a crisis of its own irrelevance, as well as the Euro crisis, which is of its own making. If David Cameron is serious about his pre-election Commons commitment, “to reform the EU and fundamentally change Britain’s relationship with it”, and about his desire, set out in the Commons earlier this month, to see “British judges making decisions in British courts, and the British Parliament being accountable to the British people”, then now is the moment to make these demands clear. But where is the evidence that the Government is trying to achieve these things?
In summary, nobody can explain how a promise of future Treaty change after our referendum can be made “legally binding” – so this appears to rule out serious reform or fundamental change in our relationship with the EU. In any case, last week’s leak of an FCO memo to The Guardian is also very worrying, because it shows that the UK is asking for barely anything.
The Five Euro Presidents report shows the EU’s real agenda. It sets out a programme to make economic convergence “binding”, and to create a fiscal union by 2025, apparently without the new treaty which the Prime Minister vetoed in December 2015 for good reason. Are we now powerless? So given the Greek crisis, the mess that the EU is in and how the Commission wants to respond, the Government has the best opportunity ever to insist on the essential and fundamental change we need, if we are to stay out of EU political union. If it fails to pursue this, then it will be clear that an No vote is the only way to get a better deal for Britain.
What does “fundamental change” in our relationship with the EU actually mean? Cameron and George Osborne understand the question well, and they must confront it. In this Bloomberg speech the prime minister said “it is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU”, but he knows that this is not recognised by the EU.
He has also often promised, “We want to be in Europe for trade and cooperation …not the building of a superstate.” The Chancellor was exactly right when he warned last year that our present EU membership means we “will have to choose between joining the euro, which the UK will not do, or leaving the EU.” (Curiously, these words are not included in the “extracts” of this speech to Open Europe on the government website!)
Whatever agreement is reached in this renegotiation, the “fundamental” question is: who will adjudicate on what the words mean afterwards? Today, only the institutions of the EU decide what shall be subject to the process of EU integration. It is the only the European Court of Justice which ultimately decides what the treaties mean – and how EU law applies directly in the UK. The EU is this taking ever wider and wider powers. If this is not changed, then there has been no “fundamental change”. The process of EU integration, now being driven by the Eurozone states, would remain beyond the control of our national parliament.
“Fundamental change” means the ending the automatic supremacy of European law, so that our democratically-elected national parliament can control our laws to protect the UK from inclusion in the integration which the Prime Minister opposes. Democracy is about the right to control your own laws. Otherwise we will continue to be swept up in the process of EU integration which is dominated by the Eurozone states, and Cameron’s commitments will be ancient history.
Most reasonable people want to give the Prime Minister space to make his case to our EU partners but, unless he expands upon these commitments, support for the formation of a No campaign will build quickly from now. This cannot wait for another three or six months for an outcome which everyone already knows will be inadequate. That may be what some would like, but it would give the Yes campaign a completely unwarranted free run.
The EU summit: powerless and irrelevant
We can see from the EU summit communique that there is no hint of an agenda which embraces fundamental change. It also makes the EU look powerless and irrelevant to the challenges of today’s world.
Yes, the summit discussed the migration crisis, but the EU’s feebleness will encourage the flow of more migrants in ever-greater numbers. The EU is all the more incapable of dealing with the movement of illegal migrants, drug traffickers and terrorists throughout Europe because it has abolished its internal frontiers in the name of “free movement of people” – so they can get from the Mediterranean coast to Calais unchecked.
Yes, it discussed “Security and Defence”, but the decision to continue “the process of strategic reflection” underlines the EU’s hopeless insignificance as a pretend world power.
Yes, it discussed “Jobs, Growth and Competitiveness”, but without a hint of recognition that, ironically, it is the Euro itself which is inflicting a terrible loss of livelihoods, incomes and financial security on the Greeks, among others.
Laughably, EU leaders bestowed the title of “Honorary Citizen of Europe” on Jacques Delors, the former EU Commission president, ‘for his remarkable contribution to the development of the European project’. Yet it was he who was the architect of this Eurozone disaster. The Greek Prime Minister’s referendum bombshell has exploded the last bit of credibility that the Euro had left. To blame the Greek people for their plight is to blame the victims of the Euro, rather than its perpetrators, such as Delors.
And finally, yes, it discussed “the UK”, but in only one sentence. They agreed no more than to “revert to the matter in December”. Any claim of a UK success at this summit would suggest a rather limited idea of success.
Where is the evidence of fundamental treaty change?
The news that there will be no treaty change before the referendum, and confirmation in the Guardian leak that the Government’s negotiating demands are in fact very limited, are together are making matters clear much sooner than expected. Most reasonable Conservatives still hope that the Prime Minister will yet deliver “fundamental change”, to provide for a new relationship with our EU partners, but where is the evidence of a serious attempt to achieve this?
Before the election, David Cameron was demanding “proper full-on treaty change to get out of ever closer union”. Now we are told that we may have to accept a mere promise of treaty change, but that it will be somehow “guaranteed” and made “legally binding”. How exactly? The so-called “Denmark precedent” of 1992, briefed by a UK diplomat to the EU, was under different circumstances. It attached an opt-out protocol to the Maastricht treaty which itself was still subject to ratification. How could this apply under the Lisbon Treaty, which is already in force?
“Proper full-on treaty change” would have to go through the ratification processes of all the other 27 member states. Unless it is so insubstantial as to be irrelevant (such as removing just the words “ever closer union” from a mere preamble) then there will need to be referendums in at least one country (Ireland), and probably others, to effect treaty change. So can any changes be “legally binding” when it only full treaty ratification can do that? Such claims will only further erode faith in this process.
Outside the treaties: better for the UK and better for Europe
The UK could have a great future outside the existing treaties. We would save that £9.8 billion we contribute to the EU. We could release our economy from the burdens of EU regulation. We would regain global influence, with gains such as our own seat on the World Trading Organisation, where trade deals are agreed, as is fitting for the world’s sixth largest economy.
Even EU “honorary citizen” Jacques Delors has said that the EU would have to conclude a new trade deal with the UK. No serious person can dismiss the prospect of such an agreement as the least bit impractical or unrealistic. In the longer term, there are huge opportunities for translating our extensive global relationships and influence into a new and growing axis of trade.
We could re-invigorate NATO, renew our global role, and contribute to the solving the world’s real problems. And all this would not make the UK “bad Europeans”. Such a new relationship with our EU partners would also be the catalyst for the change within the EU it so sorely needs – and which many of fellow Europeans wish to see.