Europe and the Coalition: phony war or slide towards separation?
The Observer’s headline this morning (“Defiant Brussels slaps down British threats to rewrite immigration rules”) highlights the growing rift between the current Government and the European Commission. Many, even in the Conservative Party, are worried that this rift with the Commission – which extends over free movement of labour to the Governments of Bulgaria and Poland – will render ineffective the Government’s diplomatic efforts to secure support for repatriation of powers or widespread deregulation.
Pragmatists and europhiles in the Coalition worry that relationships are now so bad that the Government’s avowed strategy of negotiating reforms to the EU so that they could be endorsed by an in-out referendum in 2017 will founder because the rift will make it impossible to secure concessions. They fear that the Government’s bull in a china shop approach, and the hostile reaction it is generating from European politicians, will propel Britain out of the EU. And whilst those arguing for an amicable divorce maintain we will easily be able to survive outside the EU, if it results from an acrimonious slanging match, the only people to suffer will be the British people!
In part, these rows are the inevitable consequence, as British Influence’s Peter Wilding puts it, of Cameron trying to ride two horses at once. On the one hand, he wants support from European Governments for his plans to repatriate decisions over workers’ rights, and to restrict the free movement of labour – one of the founding principles of the European Union – as well as endorse widespread deregulation. On the other, he wants to shoot UKIP’s fox (obviously he’d prefer to hunt it with hounds, but knows the British people would draw a line on that one) by getting tough with Europe. Shouting at ‘Brussels bureaucrats’ and slandering the Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians in public while British diplomats dish out bucket loads of Ferrero Rocher in private isn’t a recipe for winning friends in the Council of Ministers, although Cameron has managed to get the EU signed up to the deregulatory REFIT strategy (although the Commission claims it won’t deregulate anything that actually matters.)
Cynics will suggest that provoking angry reactions from European socialists like Social Affairs Commissioner Laszlo Andor and European Parliament President Martin Schulz – and even fellow right-wing politicians like Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding (like Schultz a possible future Commission President) – actually helps Cameron demonstrate to Conservative voters flirting with UKIP that he is ‘battling Brussels for Britain’ (George Osborne’s attempts to do the same when he is only ‘batting for bankers’ in the City have been less popular). But when even the eurosceptically-inclined William Hague says “we have to be realistic” over his own backbench MPs’ demands for a Westminster veto over all EU legislation, the strains in the policy are clearly showing.
One lesson of all this is that European political leaders shouldn’t make the mistake that they can satiate the eurosceptic beast in Britain. The appetite of UKIP and Cameron’s backbench europhobes won’t be satisfied with any concessions German or Italian politicians are minded to offer, so they might as well give up.
We’re probably still not quite at the stage we were in when Labour won the 1997 election and Tony Blair was met with undisguised relief by the rest of an EU tired of being hectored by Mrs Thatcher and then the subject of continued euro sceptic sniping under John Major. Labour’s adoption of the Social Chapter, and avowed commitment to Europe, allowed Labour to move straight into a leadership position in negotiating the Lisbon Agenda, but gradually the default euroscepticism of trumpeting ‘British national interests’ and the reluctance to embrace the European social model (eg over the adoption of the information and consultation directive and the temporary agency workers directive, and the maintenance of the working time directive opt out) turned the relationship sour.
But Labour ought to be thinking now of what a similar European honeymoon might allow it to do if it wins the next election. Not in terms of further concessions to narrow nationalism, but in terms of how Europe could be persuaded to change course in ways that would benefit British people and the British economy. One example would be pushing for the New Path for Europe investment strategy that the European Trade Union Confederation is proposing which could mobilise idle corporate cash reserves to create 11 million decent jobs across the EU, especially for young people. An early decision to join in with the Robin Hood Tax that will by then be in place across most of continental Europe’s money markets would help cement a new EU-UK relationship (as well as yielding up to £20bn a year in tax revenues for the Exchequer, some of that reclaimed from the rest of the EU.)
That would be worth the tears currently being shed over the rows between Government Ministers and European politicians and Commissioners.