By Mark Wallace
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Imagine if the DWP, Foreign Office, Home Office, Department of Justice, DEFRA, the Treasury and the Attorney General all announced that they were launching outright challenges to European policies and institutions. It would be a major change of attitude towards Brussels and Strasbourg, a more bullish approach by British politicians finally standing up to domineering eurocrats.
It may surprise you to learn that you don't need to imagine it: that is exactly what has happened over the last two weeks. Had all of the announcements happened on the same day, perhaps the headlines would be bigger – as they were spread out, mixed in with other news, the trend has not so far been spotted.
Here's the chronology:
- DWP: First, Iain Duncan Smith announced that he would fight a legal battle against the EU Commission to defend Britain's protections against welfare tourism
- Foreign Office: Then William Hague presented his proposal for a red card system which would give member states' parliaments the right to veto Commission proposals
- Department of Justice: Last Friday, Chris Grayling fired warning shots over new, job-destroying EU data protection proposals – an issue he followed up in the Sunday Telegraph
- Home Office: On the same day, Theresa May told her opposite numbers at Europe's home affairs ministries that the rule on free movement of peoples must be changed to prevent migrants travelling to take advantage of the UK taxpayer, rather than to work
- DEFRA: Yesterday, we learned that fisheries minister Richard Benyon intends to take back fishing quotas for allocation to British-based vessels rather than French and Spanish trawlers
- Treasury: Meanwhile, the Treasury told the Sun on Sunday of George Osborne's intention to fight the EU Commission over plans to remove a raft of VAT exemptions
- Attorney General: Today, Dominic Grieve will appear in the Supreme Court to fight attempts to force Britain to give prisoners the vote – a legal dispute that will be followed shortly by a vote in Parliament on the issue
It is sad but true that examples of domestic politicians going out of their way to have a punch-up with the European authorities are few and far between. That seven cases have cropped up in such a short space of time suggests this is not a coincidence.
There are two schools of thought about what is going on:
1) This is a deliberate step in David Cameron's renegotiation strategy – the early stages of Britain asking for powers to be returned and the way the EU works to be reformed
2) This is an unintended symptom of the referendum pledge – where eurosceptic and anti-EU ministers previously felt that "banging on about Europe" could be career-damaging, now they are letting rip in a way they have long wished to do
In practice, I suspect a combination of both of those forces are at work. Not all of the ministers involved are traditionally eurosceptic, so it seems unlikely they would have gone out of their way to pick a fight on their own steam. However, the fact that David Cameron and Ken Clarke have felt it necessary to restate their support for EU membership today suggests that there are some fears of this trend getting out of hand.
There is also a third factor to consider – ministers do learn and change their behaviour, particularly if irritated. It is quite likely that soft eurosceptics who start off as part of the first group, doing as planned and pushing politely and reasonably for powers to be returned, will move into the second, more combative group as they begin to experience the stubborn attitude of the EU Commission.
The experience of being in Government but not fully in power, thanks to the vast amount of sovereignty passed to Brussels, has already hardened the views of a number of senior Conservatives on Britain's EU membership – that process will continue apace now people have started banging their heads on the proverbial brick wall.
That's unsurprising for those who, like me, find it hard to imagine the EU ever agreeing to a deal which would be acceptable to British interests. For those who are more optimistic about the prospects for reform it may come as a nasty shock – a shock which will further expand and harden euroscepticism in Westminster as reasonable requests are very publicly rebuffed by those in power in Brussels.