Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
Eurocrats were incredulous when David Cameron finished speaking on Tuesday. They had been bracing themselves for tough negotiations. Might Britain seek to pull out of the common rules on foreign affairs or fisheries or employment law or asylum or non-EU trade or criminal justice? If so, they were ready to discuss concessions: the last thing they wanted, what with the Greek, Ukrainian and migration crises, was for the second-largest EU economy to walk away.
In the event, not one power was demanded back. Not one. The Prime Minister used the word “repatriation” just once, and in the past tense. Even better, from the integrationists’ point of view, he very clearly began his own campaign to remain in the EU, trying to cast the debate in terms of security as well as economics.
Continental MEPs were dizzy with relief. After all the threatening noises, David Cameron stood revealed as just one more pro-EU leader who had sung a sceptical tune for his domestic audience. When a national leader is reduced to saying that he wants “more competitiveness” – the declared goal of every European Commission these past 20 years – you know that he isn’t asking for anything.
The European Commission did its best to play along, putting out a statement to the effect that some of Mr Cameron’s ideas might prove “problematic”. In fact, the main problem Eurocrats have is restraining themselves from whooping and cartwheeling in front of the cameras.
British newspapers, by contrast, didn’t hide their views. The Daily Mail called the speech “pathetic” and “pusillanimous”: “He’s thrown in the towel before the bell has sounded for Round One”. The Sun called it “hopeless stuff”, adding: “Mr Cameron has aimed low and missed”. The Times, rather more primly, wrote of the “relief” in Brussels at the Prime Minister’s “pro-European speech”: “Cameron has accepted that the final agreement will be well within the status quo as the EU exists at present.”
The United Kingdom is far closer to leaving the EU than it was 72 hours ago. Opinion polls have been closing rapidly since the summer: a “Remain” lead of 25 points has fallen – depending on which pollster we believe – to between 7 and 0. The pro-EU campaign’s single best chance to reverse that trend was a significant renegotiation, one that would have allowed Britain to opt out of most non-economic aspects of EU membership. It has fluffed that chance.
“Ah, come off it, Hannan,” you might be saying, “nothing the Prime Minister came up with was ever going to be good enough for you”. Actually, that’s not true. I have repeatedly set out what would constitute a meaningful renegotiation – most recently in this article. None of the things I proposed is unreasonable in a free democracy.
But never mind what I was after. Listen to what David Cameron has himself called for. During his time as party leader, he has said he plans “to take back control of employment and social regulation”. He has promised “to limit the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over criminal law to its pre-Lisbon level”. He wants “EU jobseekers to have a job offer before they come here”.
In off-the-record briefings, he has gone even further, talking of quotas for EU immigrants, an end to the supremacy of EU over British law and a trade-only deal. All such talk has been abandoned. We’re reduced, ingloriously, to claiming that being allowed to keep the pound is some sort of concession.
The renegotiation, which ought to have been the pro-EU side’s strongest card, has instead ended up bolstering the case for withdrawal. It would have been better for the Euro-integrationists simply to have fought on the existing terms than to have raised and dashed hopes. The whole charade will have convinced many swing voters of something they half-suspected: that the EU is incapable of reform.
Plenty of Conservative activists and MPs had wanted, quite rightly, to give the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt. They hoped that something unexpected might be announced, something beyond what had been publicly declared. Frankly, I was in this category myself: I assumed that David Cameron would have whole warrens of rabbits concealed in his headgear. I was wrong.
Many more Tories will now, I suspect, join the Vote Leave campaign. A few will struggle. There are some who told their selection meetings “If the referendum was tomorrow, I’d vote to leave”, confidently expecting that the Prime Minister would bring back enough to get them off that hook. Others will be unable to break the habit of doing what their Whips ask. And, of course, there are plenty of sincere EU supporters, who back membership with or without reform. Fair enough.
Many more, though, were genuinely hoping for a substantively better deal. They had their own bottom lines. For some it was border controls. For others, the supremacy of national law. For others, the vast budget contributions. For yet others, the 48-hour week and other anti-competitive regulations. None of these lines has been respected.
Even among the more career-minded, the balance of advantage is shifting. Why suck up to the losing side? Why place yourself at odds with your local party? Now, surely, is the time to by shares in Vote Leave.
The phoney war is over. We know what the two alternatives are: to remain part of the EU, and follow it along the road it has chosen; or to get a different deal, based on free trade and economic co-operation rather than political amalgamation. There will be good and sincere people on both sides of that argument, in our party as in others. No one has a monopoly on patriotism. And we should be mindful, in the heat of the debate, not to say things that can’t be taken back.
It’s a relief, in a sense, that everything should be so clear. The game’s afoot: follow your spirit.