“The biggest danger to the European Union comes not from those who advocate change, but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy. In its long history Europe has experience of heretics who turned out to have a point.”
So spoke the Prime Minister as he revealed his intent to trigger a renegotiation process in his celebrated Bloomsberg Speech. Two years on, we are still waiting for the detailed insight into exactly what this new deal would entail – indeed, what range of failings it seeks to precisely address.
We can expect those commitments to emerge incorporated into the manifesto as the Conservative Party seeks an electoral mandate in May. Will what’s offered be enough? David Cameron at Bloomberg also said, “We need fundamental, far-reaching change” – and he is right.
But there is an insipid wariness that leaks down the corridors of the Foreign Office when it comes to EU reform. Notwithstanding the Thatcher Revolution, it still has to shake off the psychology of ‘managing decline’ when it comes to its relationship with Brussels. It fears to acknowledge the squalling miasma of policy failures and power seepage associated with the EU system – for to recognise them suggests it should be doing something to correct them, and to do so it needs first to possess that power.
Consequently as the storm rips the tiles off the roof, the occupants of King Charles Street only focus on moving the buckets around to catch the leaks.
So now is a time for heresy and heretics if ever there was one, to identify what constitutes the fundamental problems and what the corresponding junked competences might be. And so I offer to the reader’s own personal Index a publication out this week, co-authored with Dr Lee Rotherham, and published courtesy of the excellent think tank Civitas.
Hard Bargains or Weak Compromises begins with a basic premise: any future Government of the UK would be right to change its terms of association with the EU. Other countries fare better given their history, geography, regulatory burdens, and cross-border economies. But the terms serve us badly and are getting worse with time.
So fundamental treaty change is needed from any renegotiation, removing entire articles and titles as applied to the UK; we suggest a number, but this move deserves considerable technical study across government.
We need to be honest about going about this. The EU is not as Eurosceptics would like it. It is not even how many who are broadly supportive of a process of close European political association would like to see it. But so many vested interests are now involved, including those with brakes against the repatriation of powers, that achieving wide-ranging universal reform of the Lisbon Treaty – what we call ‘pimping the EU’ as the UK would prefer to see it run, by revoking the acquis as applied to everyone – is not realistic.
It makes perfect sense to test the waters and see where national capitals lie, but without wasting months over it. The last-ever chance of moulding an EU with which the UK could feel comfortable was lost during the Constitutional Convention that led to Lisbon – and this was no fault of Gisela Stuart or David Heathcoat-Amory, Britain’s representatives on it. It is a citric irony that Sir John Major has been touted as a potential negotiator when, if he were producing the Maastricht Treaty today as Lisbon’s successor, he would be lauded as a titan of national sovereignty. Thus far have we slipped.
This leaves us, then, developing a bilateral deal between the UK as one party and the rest of the EU as the corporate other. Our concerns, however, could be addressed by removing the key elements from EU control, which would take us into a new form of treaty association.
So what might that deal cover in removing the poison from circulation? Our study reviews six areas that should feature as red lines, though these are merely offerings for a broader menu.
First there is the sovereignty and accountability deficit; ensuring that any new treaty structure and its expense accounts do not have in-built integrationist motors.
Then there is the development of a holistic set of policies on the UK’s migrant-addicted economy. It is not enough to regain control of national borders. A coherent and long term strategy across Whitehall departments is needed to affect both push and pull factors.
The deal needs to bullet-proof the City, protecting it from regulation (especially that driven by spite).
There are the economic aspects of course, plugging the membership fees, waste, and Eurozone drag.
Ministers need to grapple with EU tariff opportunities and costs, weighing WTO permitted limits and EU regulatory burdens against relative sectoral gains from current reduced access costs.
That means dropping the sacrosanctity of the Single Market in a world of wider market liberalisation. Sacred cows need to be challenged, and not just in the Common Agricultural Policy.
Then there is the prospect of turning to localism as a long term motor of managing where powers lie.
As we say, this is merely a partial template of what red line debates should be focusing on. We say nothing for instance of fish (Common Fisheries Policy), the sword (Common Security and Defence Policy), or the plough (Common Agricultural Policy).
If our diagnosis is correct, then all political parties should be engaged in their own prognosis. The Conservatives themselves should usefully start by ditching the idea that discussing the net cost/benefit to business from the Single Market is taboo. If we accept that, we can look again at the mathematics of association. As we explore in the book, the Commission itself identifies 25 types of EU treaty association (and since writing it, we have expanded that list to 27!)
If full EU membership isn’t best for the UK, that leaves an awful lot of other variations we can consider. Let’s hear a lot more about them and a lot fewer unquantified scares. Better yet, let’s finish the job with the Balance of Competences Review. A full cost-benefit analysis of our terms of EU membership is painfully overdue.