It is hard to pin down the view of most Conservative MPs about Britain’s EU membership – Philip Cowley and Tim Bale have a go in today’s Daily Telegraph – but a reasonable take would be that a majority want substantial reform of its terms. During last year’s election, many will have told their constituents and Associations that on the present ones they would choose to leave rather than remain – the position that Michael Gove and Philip Hammond set out before the last election.
This is the background against which they will examine any renegotiation deal which David Cameron strikes. He may gain one later in the month than begins today, thus paving the way for a referendum as early as June. So they should consider carefully what he has asked for previously and what he has asked for now.
Here are ten renegotiation aims which the Prime Minister has first proposed and then dropped.
- Taking back control over social and employment laws. He said in 2007 that “it will be a top priority for the next Conservative Government to restore social and employment legislation to national control”. Last December, George Osborne confirmed to the Treasury Select Committee that this aim forms no part of the Government’s renegotation.
- “A complete opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights”. He pledged to negotiate this in 2009. But Philip Hammond said in November that “we have no proposals in the package we have put forwaed that would disengage from that”.
- Stopping the ECJ overruling our criminal law. He promised in 2009 t0 “limit…the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over criminal law to its pre-Lisbon level”. Since then, the Government has opted back in to 35 justice and home affairs measures, including the European Arrest Warrant.
- Changing the EU treaties before the referendum. In 2014, he wrote about “treaty change that I’ll be putting in place before the referendum”. But last year, David Lidington, the Europe Minister, said that “our timetable for referendum by the end of 2017 mean that you just cannot [have] treaty negotiation and 28 national ratifications within that timeframe”.
- Stopping EU migrants coming to the UK without a job offer. He said last year that “we want EU jobseekers to have a job before they come here”. This forms no part of the renegotiation.
- Removing EU jobseekers after six months. Last year, he promised that “if any jobseeker has not found work within six months, they will be required to leave”. This aim forms no part of the renegotiation, and would in any event require a change in EU law.
- Reforming the Working Time Directive. He said that the Government is “committed to revising the [working time] directive at EU level to give the NHS the flexibility it needs to deliver the best and safest service to patients. We will work urgently to bring that about.” Last December, the Chancellor confirmed to the Treasury Select Committe that this forms no part of the negotiation.
- Stopping the European Parliament meeting in two places. The Conservative Manifesto for the 2009 elections said that “the European Parliament must end its absurdly wasteful practice of meeting in Strasboug as well as Brussels. Downing Street has confirmed that this forms no part of the renegotiation.
- Reforming the Common Agricultural Policy. He promised in the Conservative Manifesto last May to “push for further reform of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. But Downing Street confirmed last November that “we have never mentioned this in the context of the renegotiation”.
- Reforming the EU’s Structural Funds. He also promised in that manifesto to “seek further reform of…structural funds. Downing Street also admitted in November that “we have never mentioned this in the context of the renegotiation”.
This history of retreat and abandonment leaves the Prime Minister with the following seven main 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. These are to be delivered through the four “baskets” he set out to the Commons last year:
“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.”
However, as this site has pointed out many times, these aims require treaty change, and –
- No promise of treaty change would be 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 they cannot commit the EU institutions in any event.
- Even were those leaders to stay around and stick to their commitment, three EU countries must hold referendums on any proposed treaty change for it to be effected: France, the Netherlands and Spain.
- And finally, treaty change is not being proposed in any event.
Eurosceptic Tory MPs have thus, on the one hand, their view that Britain’s relationship with the EU requires major change, and the simple fact that major change is not on offer. This morning’s reports about the “emergency brake” confirm this.
We now have a brake that will apply immediately – which Number Ten is trumpeting as a major win – but which will none the less remain in the hands of the EU institutions. In the words of The Times (£), “he will accept that other EU leaders and institutions retain control of the legal mechanism for implementing it”.
Those Eurosceptic Conservatives can honestly tell their constituents and Associations that for the sake of Party unity they will support the Prime Minister. They can argue that do not want to open the door to any Labour recovery, or disrupt the programme of Conservative reform. They can say that they have changed their minds about the EU altogether.
What they cannot say truthfully is that Cameron is delivering the major reforms which they themselves backed last May. From the highest Cabinet Minister to the lowliest backbencher, they have only one choice if this matters to them: to back Brexit.