Before the last election, Business for Britain listed ten EU renegotiation aims which David Cameron has championed (see the video above) – ending ever-closer union for Britain (“we would be much more comfortable if the treaty specifically said so”), cutting red tape, returning social and employment laws, protecting the city and financial services, protecting Britain from Eurozone meddling, fast-track international trade deals, cutting the EU budget, applying UK transparency laws, “getting what Britain needs” on free movement and restoring power to national parliaments.
Over time, the Prime Minister has dropped one of these aims outright (returning social and employment laws), has clearly backed off on another – since reforming welfare benefits alone will not get “what Britain needs” by halting the pace of immigration from the EU into Britain – and is debatably doing so on a third, since whether he is succeeding or failing in his aim of seeing the EU budget cut is arguable either way. His position now seems to be as explained to the Commons in the wake of January’s European summit:
I have set out the four areas where Britain is seeking significant and far-reaching reforms: on sovereignty and subsidiarity, where Britain must not be part of an “ever-closer union” and where we want a greater role for national Parliaments; on competitiveness, where the EU must add to our competitiveness, rather than detract from it, by signing new trade deals, cutting regulation and completing the single market; on fairness for countries inside and outside the eurozone, where the EU must protect the integrity of the single market and ensure there is no disadvantage, discrimination or additional costs for a country like Britain, which is not in the euro and which in my view is never going to join the euro; and on migration, where we need to tackle abuses of the right to free movement, and deliver changes that ensure that our welfare system is not an artificial draw for people to come to Britain.
So Cameron still seems to be promising the delivery of the remaining seven aims – ending ever-closer union for Britain, protecting Britain from Eurozone meddling, protecting financial services, fast-tracking international trade deals, cutting red tape, more transparency and restoring power to national parliaments. But as he himself has intimated, delivering the first three at least (including George Osborne’s “brake”) requires treaty change. Without such change, the European Court of Justice can still force ever-closer union, plus Eurozone and City meddling, on Britain.
The 40 or so Conservative MPs who want to meet the Prime Minister to discuss his renegotiation – the Sunday Telegraph reports their request today – know all this very well. They and others understand that only treaty change itself – rather than a mere promise of it – is bankable, since any leaders of other EU countries who promise to deliver it may not be around when the time for delivery comes, or may later find reasons for evading their commitment, and cannot commit the EU institutions to treaty change in any event.
Furthermore, as this site keeps pointing out, three EU countries must hold referendums on any proposed treaty change for it to be effected: France, the Netherlands and Spain. As we put it last year, any pledge of treaty change that Cameron gains must win the consent of voters “in Kerry North-West Limerick, Friesland, Pyrénées-Atlantiques and so on” to be made real. In addition, those 40, many other Tory MPs, most Party members and such senior Ministers as Michael Gove and Sajid Javid would set more ambitious reform aims in the first place.
It may be that the Prime Minister pulls a rabbit out of his hat: last weekend’s Sunday Times (£) floated a change in the law to make it clear that Parliament is sovereign. But the drift of his policy to date has been unmistakable: to Cameron, EU policy is primarily a matter of Party management. A magisterial article in yesterday’s Financial Times detailed how he has both reduced and changed his demands over time: so, for example, proposals to cut access to migrant benefits are focus group-driven (and didn’t even feature in his original EU reform speech at Bloomberg).
Those Tory MPs and Ministers thus face a clear choice. Of course Cameron should see any group of Conservative Parliamentarians who want to see him: that’s part of what being a leader is all about. But any attempt to persuade him to undertake a fundamental renegotiation of our EU membership is a waste of time – theirs, his, everyones. He doesn’t want to hold one. And the Conservative Manifesto – on which he won an election last year – doesn’t commit him to. The choice is back him – and EU membership on roughly the present terms – or back Brexit. Now decide.