Boris Johnson tells us it’s all sorted: David Cameron is going to make his long-awaited ‘tantric’ speech on the EU ‘within weeks’ and he’s going to offer an in-out referendum.

You will recall that this speech has been kicked back several times since the summer and that Cameron himself has given nothing more than veiled suggestions of what might (or might not) be in it.

The unfortunate effect of all this is that the speech is becoming ever more important to all involved, because of the potential it holds for moving British debate forwards from its current ‘phoney war’ status. For sceptics, it will be point where the game is properly afoot, a referendum is called and they can realise their goal of withdrawal; for pro-EU elements, it will either kick a referendum into the long grass, hopefully not to be seen again, or if a vote is called then it will mobilise the currently passive pro-EU constituency to follow in Tony Blair‘s wake in speaking out.

The reason for the delay is also pretty obvious: Cameron doesn’t know (or can’t decide) what to say. As Bagehot noted in The Economist recently, Cameron is hemmed in on one side by his increasingly radical backbenchers and on the other by the clear recognition that moving out of the EU will only marginalise the UK more.

In brief, there would appear to be a number of options of what he could say:

  • Offer an in-out vote this parliament. This is the sceptic maximalist option and very unlikely, given the pressure on parliament’s time, the long list of other (economic) priorities, the likely sundering of the coalition and the current sets of EU negotiations where the UK is already struggling to be heard;
  • Offer in-out next parliament. Less unlikely, since it offers the possibility of bouncing other parties into making the same commitment and (if we believe the polls) making it Labour’s ‘fault’ for falling out of the EU. However, it remains unlikely precisely because it would make it much more likely to tie politicians’ hands on future policy and Cameron has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t want to exit (in line with Labour and the Lib Dems);
  • Offer a consultative vote sometime to give a mandate to renegotiate membership. This side-steps exit (at least initially) and potentially gives HMG a strong hand to ‘go to Brussels’ to secure concessions. However, the mood across the EU is not a positive one, especially given the big push on EMU reforms, and it’s not hard to see ‘renegotiations’ turning out much like 1974, i.e. nothing of substance. It would also then presumably lead to a second vote on whether to accept the new terms, bringing exit back on the table;
  • Offer no vote, but instead set out his policy of critical engagement, defending British interests, etc. Also unlikely, mainly because it would cause uproar in his party and severely dent his ability to lead them. At best, this would end up just kicking the issue down the road a short distance, only for it to return  with heightened calls for its resolution.

Ultimately, there are no good options left for Cameron. His actions over the parliament (and before) have gradually exposed the flaws in his EU policy: ‘let’s not talk about it’ has been taken by backbenchers to mean that Cameron is with them on leaving the EU, when it actually just means ‘let’s not keep scaring voters that we’ve got nothing else to discuss.’

As Christmas approaches, Cameron is left in an invidious position of his own making. Whatever he does, it will have lasting repercussions.

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I’ve just posted a new piece on “Building a new Europe: Engaging with British euroscepticism” for the European Council of Foreign Affairs, as part of their “EU at the crossroads” project.

In it, I conclude that “The longevity of British euroscepticism – in all its forms – can be seen in one of two ways.  Either the British are ‘different’ and reconciliation is impossible, or we have just not found the right way to bridge the gap.  The very existence of the EU, built as it on the Franco-German rapprochement, shows the fallacy of the first option.  Therefore, euroscepticism should act as a spur to making the Union into an effective and legitimate mechanism for governance.  That will require a change, not only in institutions, but also in attitudes. ”

Full text here.

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William Hague gave a rare speech on the EU this week. Entitled “Europe at a crossroads: what kind of Europe do we want?”, he sought to map out some of the major challenges the EU faces, having sung the praises of the Single Market.

These he listed as: differentiated integration; democratic legitimacy; and division of competences. Obviously, these overlap and are in turn mediated through particular projects. Hague’s representation of the British stance on the Eurozone crisis highlighted the very difficult position of being an interested by-stander: “Clearly the Eurozone’s current structures are not working. We respect the democratic decision of the countries of the Eurozone to preserve it.  That will require changes. We know the options. It is not for Britain to tell you what the exact remedy should be.” It’s akin to the old Harry Enfield sketch of the “only me!” man: he might be right to point out problems, but it’s not the best way to build lasting relationships.

Hague noted deep public disillusionment with the EU and feeling that it was a one-way ratchet of centralisation: “If we cannot show that decision-making can flow back to national parliaments then the system will become democratically unsustainable.” This was all seized on by some media as a veiled threat to the EU of withdrawal, but that is a hopeful, rather than an accurate reading. Certainly, it seems somewhat willful on Hague’s part, given the Lisbon provisions on national parliaments.

My perspective is that this was a speech about laying down markers, without constraining action. Hague mentioned Single Market reform, the budget negotiations, the JHA opt-out (presented here as “re-balancing”), all to make the point that these areas can be conceptualised in a more pro-EU way, as helping the Union to resolve those basic challenges.  Even the Review of Competences was presented as a means to improving European governance, rather than a prelude to renegotiation or withdrawal.

More notably, the speech didn’t set out a major new agenda or policy: it was a placeholder. The “embracing of diversity” that ran through the speech has been a staple of Foreign Secretaries’ contributions for decades now. Instead, it highlights the primacy of internal Conservative party politics in guiding debate. Just as the ECHR ruling on votes for prisoners is showing, any constructive engagement is shouted down by backbenchers, while the Cabinet struggles to find a modus vivendi.

It’s hard to see how this can change within the current parliament: sadly, the rest of the EU might not be on the same schedule.

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I’ve just contributed to LSE’s EUROPP blog on the way David Cameron has managed his party over the EU. Here’s the intro:

Much as it did for his predecessors in the 1980s and 1990s, the “Europe Problem” has caused headaches for UK Prime Minister, David Cameron. While some have commented that Cameron has been more flexible on these issues than some of his predecessors, Simon Usherwood disagrees. He argues that David Cameron, just like John Major before him, has been unwilling to address the fundamental sources of the Conservative Party’s split over Europe.

Full text here.

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William Hague’s statement on an audit of EU powers today marks the end of a little run of developments in Conservative policy on the EU, as well as presaged the opening of a new round of what we might hopefully call ‘debate’ on the subject.

On Tuesday, the Fresh Start Group published its long-trailed ‘Green Paper’ on renegotiatingUK membership.  The paper itself represents one of the most developed pieces of research that has been conducted by a sceptic group, with an extensive discussion of options set out with a traffic light coding, to be taken to a next stage of deliberation.

The document is typical of the current face of eurosceptic approaches in the UK.  Rather than framing the debate as being about “In versus out”, it instead talks about the need to renegotiate membership, because (in the words of George Eustice on the PM programme that same day):

“Europe is at a crossroads – part of the problem we have at the moment is that the euro is failing and the process of European integration is starting to throw up all sorts of problems and it’s brought the EU to the brink and I think it’s very important therefore that […] we also get our approach on this particular issue right.”

This sounds rather reasonable and pragmatic, until one reads the document.  Of the 70+ suggestions, all of the green (‘measures that can be achieved without renegotiation’) are effectively current UK policy in any case; most of the yellow (‘measures required renegotiation’) appear effectively impossible, with repeated notes that such discussions have previously encountered deep resistance from other member states; and the red (‘unilateral breaking of treaty obligations’) are all illegal under public international law.  In short, none of them seem to be options.

Fresh Start’s plan is that following debate on their Green Paper, they produce a White Paper with a definitive list, which they will then lobby the government to pursue, with a referendum on the final outcome of renegotiations.  But the discussion of the Green Paper will be on the basis solely of comments from “Conservative MPs, Peers and MEPs”, i.e. a purely partisan debate.  The only point where the public are permitted to have a say is after everything is done and dusted, a position which jars with the long push from eurosceptics to ‘give the people a say.’

Moreover, despite the long discussion of options, there is hardly anything on why other member states should give anything to the UK. Mention is made in passing of the value of access to the UKeconomy and to the potential leverage offered by the need for treaty reform on economic governance, but with no substance to back that up. As I have discussed before, theUK has squandered any opportunity to engage positively with the eurozone crisis, and it is hard to see how turning up inBrussels with Fresh Start’s ‘shopping list’ of demands would improve that.

The Tory leadership finds itself in a difficult position, with a rebellious backbench that increasingly sees the LibDems as forcing them to compromise on fundamental issues (the EU, Lords reform, etc.).  By contrast, Cameron, Osborne and Hague have to manage an on-going relationship with other European capitals and retain some control over their party.

Hague in particular is caught on the horns of a dilemma.  He wrote a foreword the Green Paper, even if one can hear the deep ambivalence in phrases such as:

“I congratulate the Fresh Start Project and all its contributors on the publication of this Green Paper, which does just that. It is a considerable piece of work with many interesting ideas that deserves and will receive proper consideration.”

In announcing a comprehensive audit of EU powers, Hague presumably hopes to park this particular thrust from a group that contains several of the most vociferous voices on the EU in the party.  Coming just before the recess and with a planned completion date of 2014, this is not been given a top priority: no one looks particularly keen to rush into a negotiating room.  The eurosceptic camp will know this and will want to push the issue soon, while they feel that they have leverage, so this is a dog that will continue to be deprived any sleep.

In his PM interview, Eustice was asked whether he was ‘banging on about Europe’ (as per Cameron’s 2006 speech), to which he gave a telling reply:

“I don’t think we are, because what we are saying here – and I’m someone who thinks that there are many more important issues to the public, like the economy – that’s number one, that’s got to be our focus – there are issues like welfare reform and education, which are very high priorities for this government, and rightly so […] Now I don’t think that means banging on about Europe but it does mean having the right position on Europe” (emphasis added)

As we have seen, there is plenty of debate about those other issues and those debates have shown that we don’t necessarily have ‘the right position’ on any of them.  However, it’s only ‘Europe’ that is getting this treatment: The Tories’ internal conflict on the EU continues.

 

UPDATE 13/07/2012

Since writing the post, I’ve been able to talk with FCO officials, who stressed the Hague’s audit (full details here) was solely about raising knowledge of the situation, to allow all involved to make more informed contributions.  In addition, as Hague was at pains to underline in the Commons, the audit does not presuppose any particular course of action, nor any commitment to renegotiation, etc.  These are potentially very positive contributions to what has been a low standard of debate for too long.  The only question is how long the government can keep its impartiality on the process.

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Dear Chancellor Merkel,

 

I am writing to ask you to rethink your insistence upon extreme austerity as the cure for the Euro-zone’s economic problems. If you do not change your mind, and if you do not work to make such a shift politically possible in your country, you risk deepening the crisis to such an extent that it will engulf the global economy.

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Reading the open letter in the Telegraph today, from Tory backbenchers to David Cameron on opting-out of assorted European agreements, I was struck by the thought that much of this comes down to perception.  In particular, my eye was drawn to a comment by one of the letter’s organisers:

“Euro crimes, Euro police and Euro prosecutors are not right for the UK because our criminal system is so different. The pragmatic thing would be to opt out of the lot. We can always opt in at a later date because it is the right thing to do for Britain.”

Let’s leave aside the logical inconsistency of fundamental difference becoming resolvable because of pragmatic need and focus on the perception here.

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It’s never been entirely clear why Brits seem to come out in hives whenever the EU is discussed.  Any notion of fair and considered debate – something that we like to think is part of our pragmatic nature – very often gets thrown out of the window and we end up with the rehashing of stereotypes and the recycling of basic factual errors.  The EU/ECHR confusion I’ve discussed before is symptomatic, and not just with the traditional sceptic sources.

 

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Professor Alex Warleigh-Lack

At the European Council summit this evening and tomorrow, David Cameron must face up to a dilemma that has plagued all his predecessors since John Major: can Britain really be at the heart of the European Union while choosing to stay out of many key EU activities?

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Listening to George Osborne’s autumn statement over a picnic lunch at my desk today I was struck by the thought that there was a lot of window dressing and deck-chair arranging going on.  Wonderful as the Brown-esque [thanks, Olly] tinkerings were, the main message that I took from the statement was that the economic future of the UK wasn’t really in the Chancellor’s hands, if it ever really had been.

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