Cameron comes home to another Europe revolt

The PM's truce with his backbenchers is under increasing strain.

"He's sold us down the river". So said one party leader of David Cameron's new EU stance. Except the leader in question wasn't Ukip's Nigel Farage but Ed Miliband, speaking on ITV's Daybreak this morning. The Labour leader has annexed the language of betrayal from the Conservative right. He went on: "I'm going to be asking him in the House of Commons today what exactly has he agreed to, what protections has he got for Britain." Do his words, combined with the threat to vote against additional UK funds for the IMF, herald the long-awaited rebirth of Labour euroscepticism?

Whatever the answer turns out to be, it's not hard to see why Miliband is keen to maximise Cameron's political discomfort. The Prime Minister will return from Brussels today to a Conservative revolt over his decision to allow EU countries to use the European Commission and the European Court of Justice to enforce their new "fiscal compact". The Prime Minister's "veto", you'll recall, was supposed to prevent just such an outcome. The government continues to warn of legal action if Britain's interests are "threatened" by the new treaty (in other words, that the single market is undermined) but it's still a U-turn by any measure.

So, what explains this outbreak of pragmatism? In a phrase, Cameron has put economics before politics. The priority, he insists, is to resolve the eurozone crisis by ensuring the swift implementation of the new treaty. It's hard to see how the pact, committing EU members to German-style austerity, will aid European recovery but Cameron's intentions, at least, are good. As the PM commented yesterday:

The key point here for me is what is in our national interest, which is for them to get on and sort out the mess that is the euro. That's in our national interest.

But his backbenchers, many of whom are appalled that the UK is collaborating in the establishment of a fiscal union, don't accept Cameron's logic. The PM's willingness to allow the EU 25 (everyone except the UK and the Czech Republic) to use EU-wide institutions renders his veto meaningless, they argue. Here's Tory MP Douglas Carswell:

I don't see how the veto is really a veto if we allow the fiscal union members to form and to then find ourselves subject to the EU institutions being used to govern that.

With 20 MPs reportedly meeting in Edward Leigh's office last night, we can except plenty of dissenting voices when Cameron delivers his statement on the summit at 3:30pm in the Commons. But what the revolt currently lacks is a frontbencher, Iain Duncan Smith, say, or Owen Paterson, to tighten the noose on the Prime Minister. Until such a figure publicly intervenes, Cameron will probably be able to muddle through. But less than two months on from his celebrated "veto", the truce he struck with his MPs is under increasing strain.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”