A new chapter in EU integration, whether Britain likes it or not

The new EU treaty is bound to contain something that British sceptics think requires a referendum.

There will be a new treaty. It will commit euro members to fiscal discipline. It will be largely designed by the 17 current members of the European single currency. Others can join in if they want to. Those are the essential components of the deal announced today by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicholas Sarkozy after crisis talks in Paris.

In a sense this is exactly what had been expected. Discussions had been pointing in this direction since the end of last week. But the fact that the two leaders managed to say it at the same time in a live press conference lends the project a certain solidity and irrevocability. Something along the lines of what has been pledged might actually happen. Markets certainly seem reassured. The two leaders have promised monthly summits stretching ahead into the future (the preferred deadline is March 2012) to hammer out the details until a treaty is agreed and a new institutional and legal basis for the euro is fixed. The crucial fact as far as Britain is concerned here is that those summits will be convened among euro member heads of government. That is reasonable enough given it is their currency in crisis.

But Merkel did not describe these new summits as euro-fixing technical negotiations. She made it clear they would have a wide-reaching economic agenda to look at ways to stimulate growth through market reforms. That assertion spells disaster for David Cameron. His main demand in this process was to be included in the conversation about the future of the single market, to make sure Britain's vital interest in that aspect of European Union economic management was not overlooked in the hurry to redesign the single currency. If there are to be monthly euro-members-only summits looking at the whole growth and reform agenda it seems certain single market rules are going to get caught up in the negotiations. There are all sorts of ramifications if Britain isn't at the table, starting with the likely acceleration of moves on banking and finance reform to shift the balance of commercial power from the City of London to Frankfurt and Paris.

At a briefing shortly after the Merkel-Sarkozy press conference, the Prime Minister's spokesman made it clear the UK government's position is to examine more closely the content of what Germany and France are suggesting before forming a view on whether it would be better dealt with as a 17-member (euro only) treaty or a 27 member (full EU treaty). That position won't hold for long. It doesn't look as if Britain has much of a say anyway, and either outcome gives Cameron a headache. If he can persuade the European Council later this week that all 27 EU members should be working on a new treaty, he invites his backbenchers to present him with a shopping list of powers to repatriate during the talks. If he accepts that it should just be a 17-strong euro member treaty negotiation, he risks surrendering Britain's seat in a discussion that is plainly vital to our national economic interest. That process might still produce a document that has to be ratified by parliament. One way or another, the clamour for a referendum will grow.

Merkel and Sarkozy appear to have agreed a fast-track eurozone consolidation on a take it or leave it basis as far as the rest of the EU is concerned. From the French and German perspective it now looks as if the future of the European Union and the future of the single currency are the same thing. They are embarking on a new phase of integration. The implicit message to Britain: come along if you must, but stay in the back seat because we're driving.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle