The Government’s EU renegotiation always faced an uphill struggle, but as time ticks by the prospects of it delivering a deal which is either sufficiently radical or sufficiently secure diminish even further. This reality appears to be reflected in the rising numbers of Conservative Party members planning to vote to Leave the EU.
Consider the two shifting factors at play in the two and half years since the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg Speech was delivered. The Government’s demands have steadily dissolved, reaching a low point last week when the leaders of Estonia and Finland said they were yet to hear any actual proposals from London. Simultaneously, even if a deal was to be agreed, the window of opportunity to secure the treaty change required to embed it has rapidly shrunk.
It was against that backdrop that the Chancellor travelled to Germany this week to present his five demands for EU reform:
‘…what we seek are principles embedded in EU law and binding on EU institutions that safeguard the operation of the Union for all 28 member states.
The principles must support the integrity of the European Single Market.
That includes the recognition that the EU has more than one currency and we should not discriminate against any business on the basis of the currency of the country in which they reside.
The principles must ensure that as the eurozone chooses to integrate, it does so in a way that does not damage the interests of non-euro members.
There will be cases where non-euro members want to participate in developments like the banking union. But that participation must be voluntary and never compulsory.
We must never let taxpayers in countries that are not in the euro bear the cost for supporting countries in the eurozone.’
All of which sounds fine but doesn’t really mean a lot in practice. For a start, these values supposedly already exist in the way the EU operates – that it still behaves as it does despite them should warn the Chancellor about the fundamental flaws of the organisation.
What’s more, those five demands still wouldn’t touch on the much larger issues with the EU: its vast costs, both financial and regulatory; its undemocratic workings; its protectionist stance against much external trade; its constant meddling with everything from fisheries and farming to energy policy and, increasingly, defence; its control of our borders, or its attempts to dictate how we run our own welfare system. Even if the Chancellor’s request was met, the EU would still be broken and voters would still be deeply unhappy with it.
Even more fundamental than that is the question of how Osborne’s aims could be satisfied in a reliable and binding way. Later in his speech, he noted that the EU institutions have form for breaking existing agreements which are supposed to protect British taxpayers from Eurozone bailouts:
‘…in July, when, out of the blue, in flagrant breach of the agreement we’d all signed up to, and without even the courtesy of a telephone call, we were informed we could have to pay to bail out Greece.’
That ‘flagrant breach’ ought to teach us something: if a politician’s promise is of limited value, then a Eurocrat’s promise is worth even less.
Which brings us back to the question of the timetable for the Government’s renegotiation and referendum. We are now closer to the end of 2017, the last possible date for the referendum, than we are to the Bloomberg speech, when this process began. More than half the time available to hammer out a deal, embed it with treaty change and bring it to the people has now passed with next to no progress having been made.
If, by some miracle, a drastic and far-ranging renegotiation was to be agreed in the next few months, it is hard to see where the time would come from to fit in the necessary referendums in countries like Ireland, which are constitutionally required to seek the people’s permission for such changes. Without treaty change, any renegotiation that might be agreed would just be yet another untrustworthy Eurocrats’ promise.
Therefore, it seems that the referendum is not going to be about whether to stay in ‘a reformed EU’. Far more likely, it is going to be about whether to stay in the same, unreformed EU – pressing ever onwards and downwards into more cost, more meddling and more integration – on the say-so of some officials who have already broken their word but now promise to change their ways. Good luck selling that to the electorate.