The Eurosceptic prophecy fulfils itself

Cameron has traded influence in the European Union for a brief respite from rebellion in his party,

David Cameron really didn't have much of a choice in the end. As it became clear that he simply wasn't going to get the concessions he needed – "safeguarding" Britain's interests in the single market; blocking aspects of European financial services reform – he couldn't sign up to a new EU deal. Trying to force such a treaty through parliament would be immensely painful and damaging to the Prime Minister. Besides, Ireland and the Netherlands have constitutional obligations to hold referendums on new EU treaties. It would be very difficult for Cameron to refuse to consult his citizens if the Dutch and Irish were being asked.

So he said "no". What does this mean? The eurozone members and six others – a eurozone-plus – aim to proceed with their own pact to stabilise the single currency and pursue fiscal integration. Technically, it is very difficult for them to use EU institutions to enforce their deal (which is why Germany, in particular, would have preferred a full 27-member EU treaty, and why markets will question whether the euro has in fact been saved).

There will now be a lot of wrangling over what competences this new inner European core has to enact economic reforms that affect the outer tier. Britain's problem is that the outer tier is tiny: the UK and Hungary, possibly Sweden and the Czech Republic. Legally they have a strong case to prevent the eurozone-plus group from building a new institutional architecture from existing EU bodies – the Commission, the Court, the Parliament etc.

But in practice the inner core is big enough to form a majority in the Council – the assembly of heads of government where real EU decisions are made – to the near-permanent exclusion of Britain. This is the "caucusing" effect that the Foreign Office has been worried about – a situation in which the eurozone gang arrives at summits with a pre-agreed position and presents it to the outer tier as a fait accompli. When the reality of that new balance of power becomes clear, Hungary and the other naysayers might well decide their long-term interests are better served by eventually joining the inner circle, leaving the UK completely isolated.*

In other words, Cameron has blocked a treaty that he judges might have damaged UK interests, thereby creating a new settlement in the EU that could permanently tilt future negotiations against Britain. That in turn means hardline Tory sceptics will have good grounds to say that our relationship with the EU has been fundamentally altered and, inevitably, that there should be a referendum.

As I wrote yesterday, the Tories bank concessions on Europe and then come back for more. Last night Cameron made a very big concession indeed – he removed Britain from the next phase of the European project.

Sceptics should be pleased and, as my colleague Samira Shackle has noted this morning, some of them are. Then they will find, as they always do, that pushing for separation leads to diplomatic isolation, which reinforces their suspicion that the whole thing is a conspiracy against Britain. The prophecy fulfils itself. So they will insist that Cameron now set about the business of "repatriating" powers from Brussels, which, of course, he is much less able to do, having isolated the UK and antagonised fellow EU leaders. And when Cameron cannot then secure adequate "repatriation" – and nothing short of divorce is adequate for some Tory backbenchers – the calls for a referendum will sound out louder than ever.

The Prime Minister's non-deal in Brussels last night has bought him just a brief a moment of respite from rebellion in his own party. For that, he has accepted a downgrading of UK diplomatic relations with our major trading partners, leading us to the outermost margin of the EU and ever closer to the exit.

*Update: Indeed, Hungary sensed which way the wind was blowing pretty quickly and has now lined up with the non-UK consensus. It is still possible, of course, that Cameron is gambling that this emergency alliance of the rest of Europe will not last. National parliaments will have to be brought on side, some countries will expect referendums on a new euro pact and, crucially, since last night's deal doesn't appear to have actually resolved the structural flaws in the design of the single currency it might well fail to ease the market pressure driving the euro members apart. If it becomes clear that smaller states have signed up for something that gives Germany and France all of the power with no economic security in return there is bound to be a significant nationalist backlash in many countries. The whole thing could unravel, in which case the hardline British eurosceptics' ambition of getting out altogether would be realised even sooner.

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

Felipe Araujo
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Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.