Jonathan Lindsell: Here are some ideas for renegotiating our relationship with Europe, Mr Cameron
Fog and mirrors. That seems to be Government policy on the EU. Was the Bloomberg speech a sign that Cameron is Europhile, or a smiling assassin who’ll praise Brussels while he sticks the knife in? Is the ‘Review of Competences’ a useless vanity exercise, a placebo to muffle the Liberal Democrats, or a veiled attempt to write a ‘shopping list’? Does Hague’s support for the Fresh Start Group illustrate tacit Cabinet approval of their demands?
More importantly: is ‘renegotiation’ a ploy to stay in, as the government waves token concessions in the public’s face? It could equally be a plot to justify exit, if Number 10 purposefully sets renegotiation hurdles higher than Europe can feasibly jump.
It’s understandable that the government shies away from clarifying its EU position – last time they tried, it backfired with Mark Harper’s disastrous ‘GO HOME’ ad campaign. Much better to be vague and (relatively) popular than specific and ‘#racist’.
Recent Civitas publications have sought to put substance behind the renegotiation smogscreen, to hold Whitehall to account in the future and spur Dave to action at present. February’s publication summarised different EU yearly costs, from regulation (£20bn) to CAP (£10bn) to migrant benefits (£55.2m). David Green, Civitas director, wrote What Have We Done? on the importance of true parliamentary sovereignty. He traced our history to demonstrate the British people’s hard-won ability to dismiss ineffective governments – an ability we no longer hold, and must regain.
As suggested by the title and Civitas’ broader position, individual states’ preferences form the backbone of recommendations. Gaskarth advocates, for example, that whenever a member state wins a treaty ‘opt out’, it should retain that option forever, even if a future government later opts in. Such a safeguard would appeal to Denmark just as to Britain – Copenhagen is full of voices calling for a plebiscite on Danish exemptions.
Gaskarth’s recommendations go further. The Common Agricultural Policy, he suggests, should be reformed into annual payments which member states spend as they like. This would neither solve the cost issue (Britain would remain a net contributor) – nor would it undo the EU’s Cold-War protectionism, which hamstrings development spending. However, it would allow progressive nations to modernise farming technology and withdraw payments from non-producing landowners. This should improve supermarket prices. Best of all, such a policy should not be opposed by CAP’s traditional champion, France, since their volume of payments won’t drop.
As one of the largest member states, with a trade deficit to EU-26 and a net budget contribution, parliament has ‘considerable diplomatic assets’ to make its voice heard. Gaskarth suggests that, in extreme circumstances, Britain could even withhold contributions to bailout and structural funds (e.g. to Spain or Greece) until consensus is reached. More pragmatically, he considers conceding certain demands (full repatriation of UK fishing waters) for those more vital to UK commercial interests (a Westminster veto to protect the City).
An unapologetic free-market thinker, Gaskarth envisions an effective end to the Common External Tariff, with pioneering states empowered to club together in new trade deals with Brazil, India or China while more protectionist members keep their barriers up. This may alarm Brussels, but precisely this kind of visionary is thinking needed to provoke serious debate about what a future Europe should look like.
Gaskarth’s Britain has greater control of immigration, the labour market, and foreign/security policy. Whilst personally he advocates limiting migration from accession states and withholding welfare payments from migrants who have no tax contribution history, the study makes clear that the proposed reforms are attractive to left and right alike. The principle is domestic control –parliament, not Brussels, should be able to decide how easy it is to fire people, parliament should decide who comes in and who ‘goes home’, parliament should keep command of its military and diplomatic corps.
It follows that the study has a second function. David Green’s note concludes that, if negotiation in good faith fails, ‘proposals serve as useful reminder of the vast powers that we have given up’.