The decision by Downing Street, seemingly to rebuke Iain Duncan Smith and repudiate the comments he made on Sky News on Sunday, to the effect that a Franco-German drive towards a tighter and more integrationist fiscal union should merit the active support of the British people, will worry and depress most mainsteam Eurosceptics within the Parliamentary Conservative Party, the wider party and the electorate. Not least because it suggests that Number 10 lacks a coherent plan to repatriate powers back to our Parliament and our government.
Iain Duncan Smith is of course right. We stand at a crossroads which will see our relationship with the European Union potentially and fundamentally alter to our detriment for the foreseeable future. Are the British people not able to be trusted to pass judgement on what Daniel Hannan MEP calls an “indebted and dwindling customs union” as it sets off for a destination which will inevitably mean a shift of power and influence from the UK to a new European political and economic entity over which they will have no democratic sanction?
As Bill Cash has remarked, it’s like agreeing to a trip on a ferry that’s roped to a tug and then finding you’re tethered to an aircraft carrier!
The legalistic tautology of praying in aid the minutiae of the European Union Act 2011 will surely fool no-one. In politics, what matters is not so much what is, but what appears to be – and the electorate expect clarity of thought, plain speaking and action to advance and defend UK interests. Just weeks ago, the Prime Minister pledged to do just that and fight for “a better deal for Britain.” But are we heading for another Lisbon Treaty “cast iron guarantee” moment? Back then, we raised expectations to such a pitch that it left our supporters exasperated and bitterly disappointed when we failed to deliver.
On Europe, British voters want clarity, honesty and straight talking – which is why the candid assessment of our economic predicament in George Osborne’s Autumn Statement has paid (at least in the short term short term) opinion poll dividends.
We have moved on even from the grandiloquent pledges of 2008 and the vote on October 24th on a EU Referendum demonstrates that the European Union is no longer regarded as an esoteric and arcane subject for debate by Euro-bores, but one that impinges on significant areas of government (most notably on the ability of the Coalition Government to drive growth via supply side reforms), and has resonance with many more voters than in the past.
With UKIP registering about 7% in recent polls, failure to recognise and respect this will quite possibly cost the Conservative Party an overall majority at the General Election. The settled Euro-sceptic consensus of the Conservative Party will not be fobbed off with the crumbs from Merkozy’s table at the forthcoming EU Council.
People will not understand if our Prime Minister fails to take advantage of the unique generational opportunity and congruence of events to press British interests and, more specifically, recast a whole new more mature and looser relationship with the European Union, in the event that the Eurozone countries head off towards a children’s crusade of “fiscal discipline” – which it never has been and never will be in this country’s long-term political and economic interests to support. The idea that the solution to a sovereign debt crisis is financial and political union flies in the face of reality and the withering verdict of the money markets.
Such a scheme is shot full of holes and will end not just with stagflation, mass unemployment and social unrest in southern Europe but inevitably in the impoverishment of the whole of the Eurozone area including France and Germany in time. France is deeply and rightly concerned at the idea of treaty change that will mean the subversion of its sovereign right to economic and political self government, and Germany is petrified that it will be permanently and irrevocably, the de facto creditor nation for the entire Eurozone area.
The UK buys huge amounts of goods and services from the EU, and runs a massive £47 billion trade deficit – as against a £10 billion trade surplus with the rest of the world. We therefore have the financial as well as political muscle to argue our case for a more laissez faire, flexible relationship with any new tight fiscal union. This means repudiation of a tax on financial transactions, the repatriation of key competencies in respect of financial services, social and employment policies and a wide range of other policy areas from Brussels. Accepting a little light tinkering with the Working Time Directive will simply not cut the mustard.
The Prime Minister has a good deal of support for his stated aims of adhering to the election manifesto on which all Conservative MPs were elected – and not just to draw a marker, or even the proverbial line in the sand, but to take out of mothballs the Thatcher handbag used by the Iron Lady at Fontainbleau in 1984, which won back the UK its much-needed budget rebate, and torepatriate substantive powers which are ours and were merely lent to our EU partners.
All eyes will be on David Cameron as EU Council meets on Friday. I hope and believe that he will rise to the challenge and make good the pledges he made to the House of Commons on 24th October.