Foreign Secretary William Hague – the man who led the Tories into the 2001 General Election under the slogan “24 hours left to save the Pound” – appears to be in less of a hurry about the European Union these days, although at least his relaxed demeanour in Government seems more about self-assurance and less about indolent incompetence than some of his Cabinet colleagues. His recently announced “Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union” (Cm 8415) is playing it long, with a conclusion (and even then, no formal recommendations) not due until the end of 2014.
It’s almost as if he’s getting Whitehall departments (who will conduct the review under the leadership of the FCO) to do the background reading and thinking for the Conservatives’ 2015 General Election manifesto commitments on Europe. And certainly, as one of the Cabinet’s more eurosceptic Ministers, Hague is unlikely to be able to prosecute his favoured approach to Europe until the coalition with the culturally-europhiliac Liberal Democrats is dissolved. But if this is more than an academic exercise, aimed at providing the UK Government with a long-term strategy for relations with the rest of Europe, then Hague is asking the wrong questions and will deliver the wrong answers.
The command paper, presented to Parliament earlier this month, promises consultations galore from different Government departments in the autumn and into 2013. The purpose, his foreword says, is “to take a critical and constructive look at exactly which competences lie with the EU, which lie with the UK, and whether it [sic - presumably this is a Freudian slip, and means the EU, although the sentence structure suggests the focus is the division between EU and UK competences] works in our national interest.”
Ministers in the previous Labour (and Conservative, frankly) Government would be justified in crying foul at Hague’s repeated suggestion that this has never been attempted before. In every statement of European strategy, and every Whitehall consideration of Treaty and other changes, the question of which powers should be exercised by the EU, nation state or shared has been examined and decided upon.
Hague’s command paper says that there is no intention to conclude the review by recommending a particular relationship between the UK and the EU (formally, that will presumably be left to whoever drafts the Conservative Manifesto). But if that isn’t the issue the exercise is addressing, why ask the questions that he does? Of course, no one was particularly fooled by Hague’s claim that this was not euroscepticism by the back door, but it’s a convenient fiction needed to keep Liberal Democrats on board.
And is the relative distribution of powers and responsibilities really the main issue facing Europe at the moment – or indeed over the next two years of this review? The paper does periodically genuflect to the need for growth, enhanced productivity, greater skills. But there’s no real attempt to argue that institutional reform is the solution to any of those pressing issues, let alone unemployment, poverty, inequality, racism and social dislocation generally.
Apart from Hague’s inability or unwillingness to go beyond the obsessive euroscepticism which is the equivalent of US Republicans’ knee-jerk climate change denial (by which I mean they’re both populist positions, but utterly irrelevant to the challenges the country actually faces), the main flaw of this command paper is the suggestion that there is a particular “national interest” that the European Union can be either beneficial for or negative towards, when in fact the key issue is not “the speed and scale at which globalisation is shifting wealth and power towards emerging economies”, but whether the European Union can be reformed so that it protects globalisations losers and spreads the benefits of globalisation more equally than it does at the moment.