Do the scales always show what you want? Not on Europe!
Summer is finally here. Some are packing their swim suits, and others are dreading the scales: everyone knows that they don’t always show what you want to see. This week some in the government had that familiar feeling of disappointment.
Last summer the government embarked on a review of EU powers, to be concluded in 2014, known as the Review of the Balance of Competences between the UK and the EU, “an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK.” Or in other words an assessment of the relationship with the EU as it stands today, providing evidence as to whether the balance struck is in the national interest.
No mention has been made officially as to what exactly the government would do should the answer be in the negative, but the Prime Minister’s speech in January indicated that a re-elected Conservative government would seek a renegotiation of this relationship and put the result to a referendum by 2017.
So, on paper, the exercise is politically neutral, and in presenting it, William Hague made clear that it was for each of the political parties to draw their own conclusions and make the appropriate commitments in their manifestoes for the 2015 elections. One would have almost believed him if it weren’t for the preface he wrote for a publication by Fresh Start, a Tory-led think tank, that amounted to a repatriation list. The TUC believes the exercise is an attempt to outsource – to Whitehall, of all places – Conservative Party policy-making.
Despite the claims of neutrality, one would be forgiven for thinking that actually what the Conservatives were seeking from the start is evidence that there is an urgent and imperative need to go to Brussels and demand a new settlement for the UK, one where the country would be free at last from the shackles of allegedly redundant EU regulation and thus able to prosper in a EU-lite world. Ideally other member states would see sense and readily accommodate UK needs or, even better, agree to reform the EU as a whole in the UK’s image – a slender Albion ready to win the global race.
But here is where the disappointment comes in. In the first semester reports published this week, the overall conclusion seems to be that the balance of power sits exactly where it should be, thus failing to provide a clear cut case for the UK to withdraw from areas of EU competence from foreign policy to taxation, health, development cooperation and the internal market.
In the latter two areas, of particular interest to the TUC and where we have submitted evidence, the conclusions are broadly in line with our position: that while there is scope for improvement in EU activity, the advantages in working through the EU substantially outweigh the disadvantages. Indeed most respondents, especially employers, think it would be in the national interest if there was further deepening of the single market.
Critically, the report rejects the hypothesis of there being benefits from pulling out of the single market all together. As Japan has pointed out rather bluntly (and the Australians more subtly), 130,000 jobs depend on the UK being a gateway to the internal market.
As for the other countries, the Prime Minister’s speech wasn’t greeted as expected, with most European leaders responding that one can’t join a football club only to then demand to play rugby instead. Of all 27 member states invited to submit evidence to the review, only two (Italy and Bulgaria) indicated that they would participate in the exercise, and in the end we only found an informal response by the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry to the foreign policy review.
So, overall, not really the kind of result some Tory backbenchers will be pleased to see. No doubt they will be lying on the beach all summer inwardly seething at a civil service conspiracy to undermine the case for repatriation.