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Marc Glendening: Re-negotiation is not an option, and banging on about it risks splitting the right-left coalition for an EU referendum

Picture_3 Marc Glendening is Campaign manager of People's Pledge.

Regimes and politicians periodically feel the need to reiterate arguments and claims that they know to be untrue, we the recipients of their propaganda know to be untrue and they know that we know are untrue. Yet, they feel strangely compelled to continue repeating their claims or impossibilist demands anyway. One Tory equivalent of ‘widget production is running at record levels in the Upper Urals’, or ‘violent crime is at its lowest point in the UK for 50 years’, is the periodic re-articulation of the pretence that the EU treaty can and should be re-negotiated. 

A number of conservative EU-sceptics, including John Redwood, have recently tried to revive the line, in the wake of the Eurozone crisis, that the opportunity now exists for David Cameron to play real hardball with Brussels. Unless the EU returns powers over aspects of social policy and other matters, the UK should not sign any new treaty enabling the creation of ‘economic governance’ in the Eurozone, they urge. That nice Dr Cameron, however, can be confidently expected to respond to this proposal by applying his trusty political sedative based on a carefully crafted cocktail of pretending to take this demand seriously, combined with the making of vaguely sympathetic, soothing noises. A sense of calm will return to the Tory ‘patient’. And nothing will then happen, except, of course, that the current government will agree to a greater EU centralisation of power, claiming that none of this will apply to non-Eurozone countries.

My suspicion is that 90% of the Tory re-negotiatists know that the choice now confronting us is, in reality, whether to continue accepting whatever comes down the tube from Brussels or to quit membership. They must appreciate that forcing a repatriation of powers is an impossibility since the Lib Dems will simply not permit it, as Nick Clegg has recently confirmed, plus any attempt at re-negotiation would take months, possibly years, of complex arm-twisting and coalition building in Brussels. In any case, it seems unlikely that the EU will risk presenting a new treaty any time soon. A lot of the economic governance agenda will be forced through using a revamped article 136 of the Lisbon treaty, so avoiding any risk of a referendum in Ireland or anywhere else. Back in March, our government won the backing of Parliament to give it the go-ahead to agree to the EU beefing up article 136 with absolutely no strings attached. Brussels is now using Lisbon to add new powers not spelt out in the original text of the treaty. 

Accepting the stark reality before us, however, is not something at this stage, for politically understandable reasons, most Tory (as well as Labour) EU-sceptical MPs and wannabe politicians want to acknowledge. Putting forward the case for a theoretical re-negotiation is therefore a much more attractive option: it enables politically ambitious EU-sceptics to sound simultaneously radical without instantly placing them outside the mainstream (instant death in today’s politically conformist, cautious and superficial culture). Inevitably, the central demand the Tory boys and girls make in this context is the repatriation of employment and other aspects of social policy. This is a strategic disaster from an anti-EU perspective because the Social Chapter has obviously been popular amongst those on the left. Targeting this area can only undermine the struggle to build a mass, democratic popular front across the political spectrum for a referendum on EU membership. This is the only way now to change our relationship with the EU. Clearly, the centre-right on its own has not got the strength to deliver this objective. 

It is as unwise for EU-sceptical conservatives to whine on about the Social Chapter as it would be for pro-EU Tories to, say, crow about Brussels imposing public sector cuts on the Eurozone and centrally demanding the liberalisation of a range of services. To do so is to potentially drive a wedge in the coalition of forces that is in the process of being created around the referendum demand.

The building of this cross-party alliance on Europe is a delicate business that requires the different component parts to apply a self-denying ordinance. It means emphasising the issues and demands that unite rather divide left, right and centre. To employ a New Labour-ism, the EU-sceptical ‘narrative’ needs to make it clear to the British people that so long as Brussels remains legally supreme over the member states, it doesn’t matter whether the electorate want public ownership to be re-established over the railways or postal services, or instead want greater economic deregulation of employment policy and other areas. These and other key decisions will not be made by law-makers accountable to the electorate. Proper democratic political conflict between left and right will only resume once we are free of EU control.  

Presuming it is accepted that we all acknowledge that there is no prospect of re-negotiation, Tory EU-sceptics should either 'out' themselves as now being overtly anti-EU or, if they cannot bring themselves to do this, they should refrain from reiterating European policy demands that the left do not share and which inhibit the work of those who are prepared to wage the battle for independence through the building of the referendum alliance. 


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