By Paul Goodman
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On the one hand, the Financial Times says this morning that the Government won't seek to use the Eurozone crisis as an opportunity to repatriate powers; on the other, the Times suggests that it will use the Eurozone crisis as an opportunity to repatriate powers. What is going on?
A reflex answer is that Ministers are spinning different stories to different papers, but this response is as easy as it incomplete: the two stories are complementary, and the detail in each explains why. Both papers agree that David Cameron won't use the crisis for a major renegotiation, but add that he wants to protect financial services and restrict the application of working time directive.
The Financial Times leads on this story, reporting that the Prime Minister will confirm this appoach to Nicolas Sarkozy when they meet today. The Times, however, kicks its account off by reporting that William Hague has "ordered Foreign Office civil servants to help Eurosceptic MPs to draw up proposals for winning back powers from Brussels". It adds that "the move threatens to exacerbate tensions over Europe within the coalition, where Nick Clegg has warned that changing EU treaties is a distraction".
These details harmonise if one imagines Cameron ending a statement to the Commons, after a swift treaty negotiation, in roughly the way I have previously set out on this site:
"To sum up. This deal curbs the extravagance of the EU budget. It extends the single market. It protects the position of the City. And it sets an ineradicable precedent by repatriating power from the EU. The Common Fisheries Policy is ending, and we are regaining control of our waters – a win for Britain. Control of the working time directive is comes home – a win for Britain. Mr Speaker, this whole deal is a win for Britain. I say to the House: fundamental reform is beginning. We cannot do it all at once, but we have made a start. There is more – much more – to come. I commend this settlement to the House."
So in the short-term, the Prime Minister will stick to the priorities on which the Times and the Financial Times this morning agree: protecting the City and altering the working time directive. I make a reference above to the EU budget; the two papers mention the single market. The regionalisation of the CFP may be thrown into the mix. All this would all be fine and dandy with Nick Clegg, because it contains no substantial repatriation of powers, and the single possible exception (the working time directive) is specifically approved in the Coalition Agreement.
And in the longer term, the Prime Minister will suggest, there will be further repatriations. He will be able buttress his case by reminding the Commons that William Hague is working with the new All-Party Group on European Reform, whose launch Andrea Leadsom wrote about on this site, on which powers should further be repatriated from Brussels. The move side-steps accusations that civil servants are being dragged into party politics by ensuring that Labour MPs are included.
It may also help to improve the Foreign Secretary's standing with some Euro-sceptic MPs, which was damaged by what they see as a slow Foreign Office response to the Eurozone crisis. The Times notes that the group includes Conservative MPs who rebelled over a EU referendum.
- Does the the Conservative Fresh Start Group – from which the all-party group emerged – see its main purpose as stiffening the Government's resolve over the repatriation of powers or, as one has put it, "educating the party about the EU"? To put it more emotively, are they Eurosceptic revolutionaries or Government secret agents?
- How will the average Conservative MP – my "over-worked, under-paid, IPSA-fearful, ambition-thwarted and constituent-beset" J Alfred Prufrock MP – react to such a minimal package from the Government?
- If a treaty change is made to allow fiscal integration, will there really be further treaty changes? And would this Government take the opportunity that these would offer to repatriate powers on a big scale?