You would have thought that this would be a great time for EU-sceptics in the Conservative Party. We warned that the euro would be a disaster – and so it has proved. It is now unarguable that we EU-sceptics of all parties have the best interests of the UK at heart, and of Europe as a whole, but we are having a frustrating time.
The new Government has accepted every transfer of power to the EU as fait accompli – including every aspect of the Lisbon Treaty, on which we promised a referendum. The Government has decided to pass up a golden opportunity to offer a referendum on the post-Lisbon settlement by making it clear that there will be no referendum on any Treaty to deal with the euro-crisis.
Instead, the Government is handing over new powers to Brussels, such as the new provisions for economic governance (Yes, ministers are justified in claiming that non-euro members will not be subject to specific sanctions, but they cannot reasonably deny that EU jurisdiction over the UK budget process is being strengthened). The Government has agreed to new, powerful EU institutions, such as the EU External Action Service, which will cost €billions and will endanger the pre-eminence of our own Foreign Office, which is being cut back. The UK Government voluntarily opted in to the EU investigative orders.
To top it all, while we slash defence spending and other programmes at home, the Government asked the House of Commons to accept a wholly unjustified increase in the EU budget of 2.9 per cent. There are now signs that there could be a freeze, but this is only because a substantial revolt of Conservative MPs persuaded the Government to accept an amendment, without a vote, in the name of Bill Cash, to reject any increase – quite a shock to the Commission and European Parliament. However, this will still see the UK net contribution rise from £3.0 billion in 2008-9 to £9.5 billion by 2013-14. This is testing the patience of many Conservative MPs (both within and outside the Government). It is also having a corrosive effect on the party in the country.
Those in government who claim to be vindicated about the euro are careful merely to say how “we were right to stay out of the euro”, a reference only to the Maastricht treaty opt-out. However, it is the Maastricht Treaty as a whole that has proved to be the disaster for Europe, including for the UK, euro opt-out or not. In fact, the UK opt-out itself has proved totally irrelevant. Sweden voted not to join the euro in a referendum in 2003, and they never had an opt-out.
As Michael Heseltine candidly told a small group of backbenchers at the time, the opt-out was simply a political device: the only way that Conservative MPs could be persuaded to vote for the Maastricht Treaty at all. By failing to veto the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the UK is now condemned to suffer the consequences of living on the edge of a wholly dysfunctional, multi-state single currency area, where the collapse of financial institutions and sovereign default have the potential to plunge our own economy back into crisis.
Apart from Iain Duncan Smith, there is not a single Conservative in government who voted against Maastricht. Others might well have done so if they had been in the House at the time. Would that have included the Prime Minister? Or George Osborne, who pointedly refused to accept that Maastricht was a mistake in the House of Commons this week? We can only judge them by what they do now. The Government is already hinting at a new “narrative” around the opponents of Maastricht and those newer MPs who share the same views. Last time, backbench EU-sceptics were branded as wreckers, malcontents, obsessed, the dispossessed and swivel-eyed. They cannot afford to do the same now.
Twenty years after the Maastricht Treaty was signed, its opponents have been proved to be those who best understood the UK’s national interests. We were the true realists. We were the true “pro-Europeans”, who campaigned to save Europe from itself. It was the Major Government that drove through the Maastricht Bill, when we knew it was so contrary to the UK’s national interests. Moreover, we have been proved comprehensively right, not just about the euro, but about the meaninglessness of “subsidiarity”, the democratic deficit and about the horrendous costs of EU over-regulation. The social chapter opt-out meant nothing, and the federal character of the EU was not reversed at Maastricht, but accelerated.
In contrast to John Major, David Cameron shows every sign of understanding that he cannot afford to alienate people like Bill Cash, who was elected unopposed by the whole House to chair the European Scrutiny Committee. Public sentiment today in the country is much more EU-sceptic than in 1992, and the modern Conservative Party in Parliament reflects that. That means he cannot afford to allow the few EU integrationists in the government to split the Conservative Party again over Europe, or the coalition itself would be in danger.
The test of this approach is whether there is informed consultation and dialogue with the 1922 Committee. This needs to improve. When the Chancellor says. “’I told you so’ is not much of an economic policy”, it sounds like an attempt to close down the discussion. The UK’s national interest is closely involved with the Republic of Ireland, and most of us accept we must help our immediate neighbour, but it is reasonable to expect an assurance that the UK will be exempted from any liability to prop up the ill-fated euro in other euro-states. By accepting liability for Ireland through the EU stabilisation mechanism, the UK has accepted an unfortunate precedent. It is also reasonable to expect an assurance that there will be no new Treaty unless the UK is exempt in future – not quite the assurance that he has given so far.
We must also discuss whether the new EU Bill in its present form represents any protection for the UK. It does not compel the Government to hold a referendum on a new Treaty or transfer of power. That requires another Act of Parliament. Moreover, the so-called sovereignty clause in the EU Bill is no more than a statement of a historical fact (that EU laws have effect in the UK because of an Act of Parliament). It does not assert Parliament’s continuing legal supremacy or give Parliament’s sovereignty any practical effect. In fact, neither of the words, “supremacy” or “sovereignty”, appear at all.