The latest Eurosceptic move is Cameron-friendly

100 Tory MPs have today called on the PM to do something he would almost certainly do anyway. Their

More than a hundred Conservative MPs have written to the Prime Minister - via the Daily Telegraph - demanding he resist the transfer of certain justice and policing powers to Brussels. So, another rebellion brewing, indicating division in the Tory ranks and threatening to destabilise David Cameron? Er, no, actually.

This is no belligerent broadside from the intransigent europhobic ultras. The names on the list include the usual and predictable suspects. Bill Cash is on there, so are Edward Leigh and Bernard Jenkin. But there are also new MPs from the 2010 intake - Chris Skidmore, Charlotte Leslie, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Charlie Elphicke (those last two being, apparently, the organisers of the thing). These are thrusting, ambitious types, tipped for big things in the future. They are not the sort to casually blot their copy books with ill-judged campaigns that might embarrass their most vital potential patron in Downing Street. A key signatory is George Eustice, a former press spokesman for Cameron and, in a past political life, a candidate for Ukip. He represents the overlap between the new MPs' raw eurosceptic instincts and their preferences not to come across as troublemakers.

Many of the signatories would only have put their names to this missive with reassurance that no harm to their future careers would be done by it. Indeed, it is not so far-fetched to suppose that the Tory whips and Number 10 are supremely relaxed about this manoeuvre. Supportive, even.

Why? The move the letter urges is not as demanding as it might seem. In most respects, "repatriating" powers from Brussels would require a difficult negotiation, re-opening past treaties, building alliances with like-minded governments elsewhere in Europe and offering concessions to secure a deal. That much Cameron found to his cost when demanding special protection for the City in December (in a way that amounted to a repatriation of certain regulatory powers). The answer was an unequivocal and swift "no".

But what the Telegraph letter refers to is the exercise of an "opt out" - which just to confuse matters is really the selective exercise of an "opt in" - with regard to combined European Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) policy. This is a fast-growing body of European law to cover cooperation between different national jurisdictions on matters such as extradition, arrest warrants and, most controversially, asylum and immigration. The theory behind integrating policy in these areas is that migration issues and crime are plainly borderless enterprises, so EU policy should evolve to reflect that fact.

The idea of ceding authority over aspects of the British justice system to EU institutions is anathema to the Tories. It didn't much appeal to the last Labour government either and the UK negotiated the right to "opt in" to measures in this field on an ad hoc basis. Under the Lisbon Treaty, Britain continues to be able to pick and choose when it comes to participation in JHA measures but not forever.

After the 1 December 2014, the separate JHA "pillar" of EU policy will be merged with the bulk of EU practice and so decisions made in that area will be approved or rejected by a qualified majority vote in the European Council - the regular Brussels summits of EU leaders. In other words, from that moment onward, there would be no veto option. Six months before that happens, the UK has to decide whether it is in or out of the whole JHA integration process. No more pick 'n' mix.

So the deadline is June 2014. Now it so happens that integration in the JHA field is quite popular with the police. It has helped track down terrorists and serious organised criminals hiding out in other European countries. It has enabled the smashing of European paedophile rings. It is also popular with the Liberal Democrats. When challenged on his Europhilia in the 2010 election, Nick Clegg extolled the virtues of the European arrest warrant as an example of something practical and useful that the EU does.

But there are clearly problems too. British authorities complain about the cost and administrative hassle of dealing with mountains of extradition requests from other EU jurisdictions for petty offences - the Polish plumber who turns out to be wanted on a shoplifting charge in Krakow and has to be shipped there at UK expense. There is also understandable squeamishness about limiting British powers to intervene when citizens are hauled before other countries' courts.

Anyway, the pros and cons argument hardly matters because there is simply no way David Cameron could get away with signing up to the fully integrated JHA package even if he wanted to. It would probably require a vote in parliament and could easily and realistically be presented as a substantial cession of sovereignty, which, under the 2011 European Union Act would trigger a referendum.

Bear in mind also that the June 2014 deadline coincides with elections to the European parliament. The last time around, Ukip came second in the national vote.

What the signatories to the Telegraph are asking is that Cameron refuse to exercise his full JHA opt-in, thereby, at a stroke, "repatriating" a bunch of powers from Brussels. It is pretty hard to imagine him doing anything else. The Lib Dems won't like it, but a year before a general election it is just as hard to imagine them ramping up their anti-Tory rhetoric on the basis that they want to make it easier for British citizens to languish in Bulgarian jails as, no doubt, the eurosceptic press will depict their position.

This may come across as an arcane technical process, but it is definitely exercising strategic minds on both sides of the coalition. There is no particular reason why a bunch of Tory MPs should suddenly today decide to urge the Prime Minister to do something in 2014, which, in any case he probably means to do. Unless, of course, there is an appetite in the party for putting down markers, staking out policy territory, in case the Lib Dems start feeling a bit cocky about their influence over European policy. This is not a manoeuvre against Cameron, it is a shot across Nick Clegg's bow and I don't suppose Number 10 is unhappy about that at all.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

As a Conservative MP, I want Parliament to get a proper debate on Brexit

The government should consider a Green Paper before Article 50. 

I am very pleased that the government has listened to the weight of opinion across the House of Commons – and the country – by agreeing to put its plan for Brexit before Parliament and the country for scrutiny before Article 50 is triggered. Such responsiveness will stand the government in good stead. A confrontation with Parliament, especially given the paeans to parliamentary sovereignty we heard from Leave campaigners during the referendum, would have done neither the Brexit process nor British democracy any good.

I support the government’s amendment to Labour’s motion, which commits the House to respecting the will of the British people expressed in the referendum campaign. I accept that result, and now I and other Conservatives who campaigned to Remain are focused on getting the best deal for Britain; a deal which respects the result of the referendum, while keeping Britain close to Europe and within the single market.

The government needs to bring a substantive plan before Parliament, which allows for a proper public and parliamentary debate. For this to happen, the plan provided must be detailed enough for MPs to have a view on its contents, and it must arrive in the House far enough in advance of Article 50 for us to have a proper debate. As five pro-European groups said yesterday, a Green Paper two months before Article 50 is invoked would be a sensible way of doing it. Or, in the words of David Davis just a few days before he was appointed to the Cabinet, a “pre-negotiation white paper” could be used to similar effect.

Clearly there are divisions, both between parties and between Leavers and Remainers, on what the Brexit deal should look like. But I, like other members of the Open Britain campaign and other pro-European Conservatives, have a number of priorities which I believe the government must prioritise in its negotiations.

On the economy, it is vital that the government strives to keep our country fully participating in the single market. Millions of jobs depend on the unfettered trade, free of both tariff and non-tariff barriers, we enjoy with the world’s biggest market. This is absolutely compatible with the result, as senior Leave campaigners such as Daniel Hannan assured voters before the referendum that Brexit would not threaten Britain’s place in the single market. The government must also undertake serious analysis on the consequences of leaving the customs union, and the worrying possibility that the UK could fall out of our participation in the EU’s Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with non-EU countries like South Korea.

If agreeing a new trading relationship with Europe in just two years appears unachievable, the government must look closely into the possibility of agreeing a transitional arrangement first. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, has said this would be possible and the Prime Minister was positive about this idea at the recent CBI Conference. A suitable transitional arrangement would prevent the biggest threat to British business – that of a "cliff edge" that would slap costly tariffs and customs checks on British exports the day after we leave.

Our future close relationship with the EU of course goes beyond economics. We need unprecedentedly close co-operation between the UK and the EU on security and intelligence sharing; openness to talented people from Europe and the world; and continued cooperation on issues like the environment. This must all go hand-in-hand with delivering reforms to immigration that will make the system fairer, many of which can be seen in European countries as diverse as the Netherlands and Switzerland.

This is what I and others will be arguing for in the House of Commons, from now until the day Britain leaves the European Union. A Brexit deal that delivers the result of the referendum while keeping our country prosperous, secure, open and tolerant. I congratulate the government on their decision to involve the House in their plan for Brexit - and look forward to seeing the details. 

Neil Carmichael is the Conservative MP for Stroud and supporter of the Open Britain campaign.