Dr Lee Rotherham: 12 principles to guide David Cameron tomorrow
Downing Street press officers will no doubt be marketing Friday’s discourse as the “biggest speech since Bruges”. When David Cameron steps up to the podium, one trusts the media managers will have conscientiously swept the room of metaphor, covering up signs above doorways saying ‘Exit’.
Will a stray EU flag be allowed to linger symbolically in the room? On the off-chance that those twelve stars are visible from the podium, here are twelve suggested principles to help guide responses to some of the sticky questions from journalists afterwards.
i) Amid all this talk of Eurorealism, be genuinely Eurorealistic. The country is overwhelmingly critical of European integration and doesn’t support it. If it were otherwise we would have had a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. By standing up tomorrow, you are simply fulfilling your democratic mandate and obligations. But, realistically, there is no chance of changing the EU as a corporate entity into what we want. That battle was fought and lost during the Convention on the Future of Europe, thanks in part to Labour indifference and with Lib Dem connivance. We are where we are because of them. We cannot fix the EU; we can only fix it as it applies to us.
iii) Withdrawal is a real option. It may not be your preferred one, and it has its difficulties, but these are matched and, in many more areas, outpaced by other advantages. By accepting this premise, you are improving your negotiating hand, and at the same time increasing your chances of getting a new arrangement with the EU that will both endure and be acceptable over the long term to the majority of the British people.
iv) Withdrawal is a legitimate route. Logically this is a no-brainer. If the choice is either to stay in an EU which has become a super-state, or leave, the only option if you wish Britain to continue as an independent state is to leave. Everything in between is a matter of relative degree. At some point the balance tips. The question is purely when we are at that point. Some convincingly argue we reached it a while ago (and I agree); others that we are on the cusp. But that bandwidth for debate is now over and the issue needs to be fixed now. Never forget that in terms of trade, the continentals do better out of us than we out of them. A cynic would start a Cabinet sweepstake on how long it would take before French farmers and German car manufacturers successfully lobbied even a spiteful and vengeful government to ensure continuing access for their exports to us. Inside the EU, the costs of the Single Market collectively, across the entire economy, probably already now outweigh the benefits to that nine per cent of British trade it regulates. The goal is to remove as many costs while keeping as many reduced tariffs. It’s a sliding scale but a trade deal outside of EU membership features prominently as an option on it. In the cold light of day you may well find it the best.
v) Stop supporting a federal Europe. If you want to push for European integration, join the European Movement. Let their leaders come clean to their voters about where the EU project is taking them (and good luck to them once they explain the price). It’s true that British diplomats have long argued in Brussels, when trying to block legislation, that this was the consequence and direction, having mutely recognised the reality as early as the original accession talks. That’s no reason that you should facilitate their folly while surrendering a key bartering point (and the moral high ground).
vi) Carpe diem. Other countries play hard ball during treaty negotiations. The CFP was bolted onto the acquis just hours before the application letters from the 1973 joiners arrived. Spain and France both threatened Norwegian accession demanding special access to their fishing grounds. Slovenia threatened to block Croatian accession over a disputed cove. The list goes on. The UK has a strong hand today because of the Eurozone Crisis. It needn’t be played recklessly or vindictively, as other countries might have. But it should be played better than Whitehall’s wont (such as when timorously refusing to apply Hague Preference rules on Total Allowable Catch, because it might offend other fisheries ministers if our boats are allowed slightly more).
vii) Commit to a referendum. Establish a precise time frame. Set the agenda, take the lead and make the others in Westminster follow. Make it an in or out question, based on your negotiated terms, and don’t be afraid to support the Out lobby if the negotiations foul up. That way you’ll avoid the folly of Labour in ’75. Even if negotiations fail, you still have two years to sort out a new friendship treaty with the EU as an outside party. If you need more time, you can even then plump for briefly sliding across into the EEA, which is what countries wishing to join the EU do, while the Single Market access deal is reached. It triggers no sweaty rush or blind panic. There are no rocks and this is not an Italian cruise liner. You will not be paddling to shore while the ship of state founders.
viii) Exploit the Balance of Competences review. If the Civil Service wasn’t aware of the scale of the issues before it started, they will be when it concludes. Encourage ordinary people with “victims’ experience” to participate. Anyone who attends Brussels ministerial meetings should find it holds no surprises. But it is a hugely important exercise, particularly if you can add an appraisal of the democratic deficit to its reasoned conclusions, and then turn it into a costed audit.
ix) Be ambitious. To succeed, you need changes that transform the architecture of Europe – or at least rebuild Britain’s annex. Make it somewhere others might want to live and you may well in time find fellow tenants. It’s better to live as a good neighbour than as a bad lodger always complaining about the taps, the noise and the rent.
x) Follow principle, not fashion. Some banshees are currently wailing about the risk to the UK from adopting a bold and visionary approach. The Lib Dems are in favour of European integration. Labour are strapped in the kiddy seat and offer no change on past failed routines. Other critics represent narrow vested interests. The UK economy is the bigger vested interest and you should be true to that.
xi) Make sure your team gets the data right. Stop talking about Norway being a fax democracy for starters. It has already been eloquently explained why this is an Aunt Sally. Talk to Nordics themselves and they’ll detail how the more Europhile Norwegian ministers (of the type that awarded the EU a Nobel Prize) have used the EEA aggressively as a halfway house to full EU membership. EEA countries do have a greater say and veto rights, even if they choose not to use them. The reality even so is that, as an EFTA report showed, by 2005 for instance only 6.5% of EU legislation had fallen under the EEA agreement, and in turn under 4% of that number had required a change to Icelandic laws already in place. Suggesting otherwise suggests your office’s reading list has been skewed. Correct it by bringing someone both experienced and with ideas on board, like Daniel Hannan or David Heathcoat-Amory.
xii) Work on what’s at fault in Britain too. Demonstrate in the meantime that you’re dedicated to meaningful change, by fixing what’s bust about how Parliament interacts with and implements EU law. It’s been twenty years now since MPs were suggesting something as anodyne as simply printing EU-sourced legislation on different-coloured paper, and departmental compliance cost appraisals still leave much to be desired. Begin by changing the system so civil servants are physically incapable of gold-plating EU regulations. That will give your team plenty to get their teeth into while the negotiations are being prepped for, and alone would be cause enough to bring Steve Hilton back.
So, Prime Minister, stop staring now at the stars on that flag at the back of the room. It’s time to respond. We’re desperate to know the answers.
Dr Lee Rotherham is a former adviser to three Shadow Foreign Secretaries and to a Parliamentary delegate on the Convention on the Future of Europe.