By Mark Wallace
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When a Government announcement on the EU causes Liberal Democrats to celebrate and Conservative backbenchers to complain, it is never a good sign for eurosceptics. So it is with the newly published first batch of Balance of Competences (BoC) Reviews, which assess six areas of powers split between Brussels and Westminster.
In short, the yellows are cheering while the backbenches are spitting blood because the reports have come back with the conclusion that the balance of powers on tax, foreign policy, the single market, healthcare, aid and food safety is "broadly correct".
While the finding is absurd, it is no great surprise given who is running it and how it is run.
There are four major problems with the BoC process, so far as I can tell:
1) The Civil Service is in charge
As Douglas Carswell tweeted this morning, "The Europhile Whitehall elite says EU membership is a good thing. This is hardly a shock". A lot of hot air is expelled discussing our supposedly unbiased civil service, but Whitehall mandarins are the last people to take a balanced view – still less, a popular view – on the EU.
Asking unaccountable bureaucrats to scrutinise the work of Brussels' unaccountable bureaucracy has inherent problems. They may not consciously bring bias to the table, but they are more likely to see the EU machine as something to aspire to than to condemn it for its anti-democratic ideology and labyrinthine structure.
One person who was invited to a BoC working group earlier in the year tells me that he regularly had to speak out to complain that the basic premise of each question up for discussion was to explore the EU's benefits, not to scrutinise its failings. Similarly, Better Off Out are annoyed that their submission, written by distinguished economist Patrick Minford, has apparently been misread or misrepresented by the review body – leading to a drastic underestimate of the economic benefits of leaving the Single Market.
If each group worked on a similar basis it is small wonder today's reports have concluded almost everything is hunky-dory.
2) Eurosceptic groups are failing in their responsibilities
Looking through the lists of submissions it is striking that despite the large number and range of eurosceptic groups in the UK, many have contributed nothing to the process.
There are exceptions – for example, Better Off OUt have made detailed submissions to five of the six policy areas, while the TaxPayers' Alliance have addressed their areas of expertise by submitting evidence on tax and international aid – but it seems plenty have failed to take part or actively refused to do so.
It is understandable that many such groups, like much of the public, simply want to leave the EU – but by neglecting to even contribute evidence into this process they have made it far easier for fringe pro-EU organisations and the mandarins' inherent biases to win the day. Whether it is laziness or a refusenik stance, they may end up pure but they will also end up losing.
The day after James Wharton's Bill won its first Commons vote, I wrote that the wider eurosceptic movement needed to "fire up the engines" to ensure we can overwhelm the entrenched interests of a pro-Brussels elite. On this evidence, far too many of them are failing to do so.
3) Where is the overall Cost/Benefit analysis?
The battle to get the Treasury to carry out a comprehensive cost/benefit analysis of our EU membership has run for years. To my knowledge, at least two Chancellors – Ken Clarke and Gordon Brown – have stamped on internal initiatives to carry one out, presumably for fear of the conclusions.
With a review of our terms of membership taking place, this would be the obvious time to carry one out – and yet there is only silence on this front. Assessing the balance of powers is fine (if done properly…) but without fully assessing costs and benefits it is inevitably a partial exercise, leaving room for vested interests to wriggle in.
4) Does David Cameron want a radical, large-scale renegotiation?
The most important concern about the process is what it says about the Prime Minister's intentions for the renegotiation. Tory backbenchers are concerned that the choice of less controversial topics, and the tame findings, are a sign that the Cameron's renegotiation will be about tinkering with the Working Time Directive rather than fundamentally setting Britain free.
David Lidington, the Europe Minister, disputes those concerns on two grounds. First, that the exercise is about building a research base, not forming a binding Government policy position on which powers the EU should hold. His implication is that Cameron reserves the right to diverge from the findings of the BoC review, exceeding their findings where the Conservative leadership feels they don't go far enough.
Second, he points to the fact that the next round of reviews will include topics like immigration and fisheries which are likely to be more controversial and more radical than those published today.
That hardly dispels eurosceptic concerns, though. Many (myself included) would argue that the Single Market, as the main source of EU regulation, ought to be an area of firey controversy, not a soft starting topic. Others are concerned Cameron is privately content with today's findings – a problem going to the heart of backbench and eurosceptic distrust of the Prime Minister. Even if he goes to the negotiating table with more radical demands than the BoC puts forward, he may be hamstrung now that the EU Commission are able to wave a sheaf of Whitehall reports which claim that there is no problem to solve.
This all raises the question of what exactly the exercise is for. Maybe Coalition politics or civil service intransigence makes a proper, punchy review unfeasible at the moment – but if that is the case, it might have been better not to start a halfway house process rather than end up with a fudge which provides ammunition to our enemies in Brussels and at home. The eurosceptic movement's half-hearted participation only makes the problem worse.
The EU is as sticky a topic as it is important – it must be settled one way or another, but it cannot be dealt with without dedication and a fight. If anyone thought this review process would be a good way to neutralise it in the run-up to the election, today's news proves them sorely wrong.