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By Paul Goodman

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HagueSquareThe Daily Mail was the first paper to have yesterday's story about the European Commission taking Britain to court over access to benefits for EU immigrants, and it is also the first to have today's about William Hague's plan to give national parliaments to reject Commission proposals if enough of them agree to.  The Foreign Secretary is to argue in a speech to the Konigswinter Conference in Germany that the European Parliament has "failed’ to bring democratic accountability to the EU, and that powers should therefore be returned to national ones.  These can already give out "yellow cards" to Commission plans.  Hague wants them to be able to give out red ones as well.

The Foreign Secretary wouldn't float an idea if believed that his hosts were likely to reject it out of hand.  The Mail says that he believes that he will find support for his plan among other northern European countries.  The proposal thus illustrates how taxpayers in these countries are subsidising the EU project, which returns us to the Commission and benefits: it has made similar complaints about Austria to those it made yesterday about Britain.  This raises the question of whether the suggestion has been rushed into Hague's speech today in response to the Commission's threat, or whether he was planning to set it out in any event. 

The Foreign Office claims the latter – and points to a speech which David Lidington, the Europe Minister, made last month in which much the same plan was set out.  The Foreign Secretary's plan won't interest those Conservatives who believe that Britain would be better off out.  And some of those who want to see the repatriation of powers will doubtless argue that a single country's parliament should be able to block the Commission.  But whatever one's view, it is encouraging from a Party point of view to see Hague putting out proposals that might be part of a renegotiation package, and giving them a bit of a push.

As the debacle over the recent Commons EU referendum vote showed, David Cameron must get ahead of his backbenchers on EU policy during the long run-up to the next election – and the next manifesto.  If he falls behind, and seeks to delay proposals for change until early 2015 (after the Government's balance of competences review has been published in full), those backbenchers, plus Party members, will produce their own ideas and thus take the lead.  This, in turn, would be likely to produce a unity-undermining row just before an election campaign and quite possibly during it – like the one over the single currency in 1997.  Hague's speech today is thus a bit of a start.  More, please.

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