My Times column on Britain’s renegotiation with the European Union:
So the battle lines are drawn. “Vote Leave, Take Control” (of which I am a vice-president) is the campaign to leave the European Union if the renegotiation is inadequate. It launched last week and “Britain in a Stronger Europe”, the campaign to remain, launches today. Yet one argument increasingly unites both sides: the futility of the renegotiation. At both ends of the spectrum many people are now convinced that little will be asked for, or offered, or won.
The distribution of public opinion on the EU resembles a Christmas cracker: roughly one third would stay whatever happens, one third would leave whatever happens and one third could go either way — perhaps depending on what the prime minister wins in a renegotiation. The referendum will pull the cracker and see who gets the middle bit complete with paper hat and miniature stapler. So you would think that the partisans of “remain” would be pinning their hopes on successful renegotiation as the best hope of pulling the middle section of the electorate their way.
But they have largely given up. Andrew Duff, a former MEP and well-informed Brussels insider, recently commented that the government’s attempt at renegotiation “continues to distress Britain’s pro-Europeans, antagonise its anti-Europeans and bamboozle its EU partners”. He thinks the government is “overselling its ‘renegotiation’ and under-delivering” — disobeying both ends of the Benjamin Jowett dictum that Margaret Thatcher sometimes quoted: don’t expect too much and don’t attempt too little.
Mr Duff argues that the prime minister has realised that he can never breach the two cardinal principles of freedom of movement and no discrimination on the ground of nationality; has suspended hostilities against the European Court of Justice; has not even begun to butter up MEPs, whose approval will be needed; and already has as many opt-outs as he is ever likely to get — a fact confirmed by the coalition government’s review of EU competences last year.
To most of which analysis the partisans of “leave” will heartily agree. With the possible exception of an agreement to restrict benefits for unemployed migrants, what they want is just not going to be on offer. If recent reports are right, Britain’s demands consist of an “explicit statement” that the euro is not the official currency of the EU so we can keep the pound, a reorganisation to prevent the euro countries dominating the non-euro countries in financial services, a red-card system designed to allow some directives to be blocked, and an “explicit statement” that Britain is exempt from the drift towards “ever closer union”.
The Eurosceptic MEP Daniel Hannan responded: “A statement that the EU has more than one currency? How about a statement that Wednesday comes after Tuesday? In what conceivable way is it a concession to state the obvious?” At the other end of the spectrum of views on Europe, Andrew Marr yesterday described the four proposed changes as “weak as water” and “things we already have”. Ken Clarke didn’t disagree. It will take all Mr Cameron’s powers as a public relations expert to dress these vague promises — assuming he achieves them — as anything other than a damp squib.
It was noticeable that the one mention of the EU reform debate in David Cameron’s conference speech focused on that fateful phrase “ever closer union”. But this, Mr Duff says, is far harder to unpick than it looks. Even if we can persuade others to promise to water down that commitment, because it implies “a future rupture with the UK’s previous treaty commitments” it cannot be offered in any form that is likely to survive a challenge at the European Court of Justice.
In short, our list of demands is getting thinner, but so are the chances of achieving any of it. Anything meaningful will require treaty change, which cannot happen till long after the referendum. Meanwhile we will have to take the IOUs on trust from a system that has twice recently let us down — by getting Britain to join the third Greek bailout, despite a clear, written promise that it wouldn’t happen, and by quietly paying the £1.7 billion “prosperity surcharge” for economic growth.
We are also short of allies. The East Europeans will not tamper with free movement of people. The Germans, desperate as they are for us to remain in the EU to counterbalance Latin fiscal incontinence, have other concerns, and are in no mood for radical change as Angela Merkel no doubt made clear in the Chequers garden last Friday. The French are reduced to wailing: “What does Britain want?”
On tactics, Europhiles tend to argue that our foot-stamping and threatening to leave is the worst way to persuade our partners to concede anything, while Eurosceptics argue that being nice has got us nowhere. They are probably both right: neither tactic will win concessions from partners immune to charm offensives and quick to take offence. (Since David Cameron became prime minister, the UK has voted against 40 measures and lost all of them — more losses than all the other prime ministers combined.)
We may yet be pleasantly surprised, and a magnificent rabbit may emerge from Mr Cameron’s hat. I hope so. But here is where our civil servants have let us down. It’s no secret that most officials are horrified by the whole process, and have never really taken seriously Mr Cameron’s promise in his Bloomberg speech to seek “fundamental” change. Had they done so, it might have been different.
Daniel Hannan thinks truly fundamental change is on offer but it has not been pursued. Guy Verhofstadt, former prime minister of Belgium, calls it “associate membership”, Jacques Delors “privileged partnership”. The European Federalist Movement has called for the same thing. They all envisage it as free-trade-plus, something close to what Switzerland has. Mr Hannan adds: “The problem isn’t that we can’t get it; it’s that Sir Humphrey in Brussels and Jim Hacker in London don’t want to ask for it.”
The launch of the two campaigns in recent days effectively recognises that the renegotiation will make little difference and that the referendum will in practice be a plebiscite on the unsatisfactory status quo. That surely means advantage Out.