Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
The crunch summit, last-minute French demands dismissed, a great victory, a new treaty agreed, the European Union reformed for our lifetimes with the Prime Minister returning home to graciously accept the gratitude of his party and country for putting the testing issue of Europe to bed…it was not to be.
We now know David Cameron’s renegotiation was never going to fundamentally reform the EU – for the simple reason he made no serious attempt to try.
The serious shortcomings of the actual deal we will come to later in the week. First we should avoid letting the Prime Minister set his own homework. We should look at what was not in his deal. In particular the items of genuinely achievable and worthwhile reform were curiously absent.
In an ideal world what would we wish to reform? As the Conservative Party, we objected to 100 per cent of the Lisbon Treaty, to Nice, to Amsterdam, the loss of the UK veto in 30 plus areas, the creation of an EU Foreign Minister, the extension of the European Parliament’s powers.
We wanted opt outs from the EU’s social policy, the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Court’s role in Crime and Policing, and at one time the repatriation of our fishing waters, to name but a few reforms. We were never going to be able to turn back the clock, but William Hague was right to promise to “not let matters rest there”.
Regardless of next month’s Leave or Remain verdict, the idea of reforming the EU was a good and necessary one which had genuine potential. The driving force behind it was the EU Fresh Start project of 100 plus Conservative MPs, who put forward a whole raft of reform proposals ranked by achievability. The list was long, but two in particular stood out as being eminently achievable but were never seriously advocated.
First, plumb for repatriation were the EU’s Crime and Policing laws. The Lisbon Treaty transferred all EU Crime and Policing laws to the jurisdiction of the European Court. In return, the UK was given a block opt-out – in with the Court or out altogether. The Government decided to accept the Court’s jurisdiction in all the important areas, leaving our judicial system at the whim of the EU Judges.
It did not need to be this way. Not only does Denmark have a more powerful opt-out than us, but the EU has signed cooperation deals with non-EU states with no Court. There is no reason to doubt that a determined UK could have secured a similar deal to cooperate with our EU partners, but without the EU Court.
Theresa May herself told Parliament that: “Undoubtedly the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will need to be considered when, after the election, a future Conservative Government renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union”. Yet there is no evidence that this issue was ever raised.
The second lowest hanging piece of fruit was the EU’s regional Policy. The EU spends over £1 billion a year in the UK’s regions. This spending is riddled with inefficiencies and all manner of strings and flags attached. Fresh Start advocated simply bypassing Brussels and spending these funds ourselves. Even Gordon Brown championed repatriating EU regional funds saying in 2003, that the time was ripe to “bring regional policy back to Britain.”
With cross party support, no EU losers, a UK veto over the seven year budget and no need for treaty change this must have been one of the easiest policies to advocate – yet again there is no evidence this was even floated at EU level.
Why were these two eminently achievable reforms never attempted? A simple poverty of ambition? Had the Prime Minister become institutionalised in the club of EU leaders, or fearful, as has happened before, of being publicly shunned by Mrs Merkel? Maybe – but the more likely and depressing alternative is that he, his advisers and fellow EU leaders decided that EU reform was not possible. The way the EU is designed, the sheer inertia of its vested interests, means that it cannot and never will change.
Whichever reason applies, it is clear we will never see a reformed EU with powers and funds flowing back to Britain and the other historic capitals of Europe. The EU we could end up trapped in next month will be the EU of today with its ever increasing membership bills – one where the integrationist ratchet of Court, Commission and Council is in full working order. Worse, it will be one where any hope of reform has ended. The only option open to us is to take back control.