There is devilish detail in the new euro pact

Forget use of EU buildings, the threat is members of the new fiscal union cooking up deals that affe

The issue of David Cameron's "phantom" European veto has fallen out of the headlines pretty quickly, ousted from the agenda by the news of Fred Goodwin losing his Knighthood. (The announcement landed yesterday, by remarkable coincidence, within moments of the Prime Minister getting a bit duffed up in a Commons statement on Monday's European summit and after a weekend of bad headlines around banker bonuses.)

Conservative Eurosceptics, however, will not forget how the gesture of anti-Brussels defiance they so celebrated in December has turned, as they see it, into a supplicant bow to the forces of continental integration. It doesn't help that the Lib Dems are conspicuously pleased by Cameron's restoration of normal diplomatic service with regard to the EU.

As I wrote last week, upholding the spirit of the "veto" to the satisfaction of Tory back benchers and doing what it takes to secure British influence in European Union diplomacy were mutually exclusive demands. In fact, it seems, Cameron has done neither.

The sceptics have concentrated on the Prime Minister's failure to prevent signatories to the new Fiscal Union (FU) treaty using EU institutions to enforce their agreement. That was always a bizarre and unrealistic fixation. If Britain's position is to support other countries pursuing their plan, why would we sabotage the obvious mechanism for making it work. (There is an argument that says Britain should be opposing FU on the principle that any countries surrendering control of their budgets to a central European authority and insisting on choreographed austerity in the middle of a downturn is bonkers - but that is a different matter and definitely not government policy.)

The real issue for concern, as far as British influence is concerned, is not the use of institutions by the FU members, but the prospect that they will crowd the UK out in discussions of the single market. This is the problem that euro-wonks refer to as "caucusing" - the danger that plans will be hatched, positions agree, alliances cemented within the FU members that can then be presented at European Council meetings as faits accomplis.

This is not a threat for today or even tomorrow, but it is clearly a problem and potentially a very big one. If Britain struggles to build alliances in the Council it can get outvoted on things that matter deeply to our economy - on tax and regulation policy, for example. In the past, this hasn't happened too often, but the new FU structures, including regular summits (combined with some ill will generated by the whole "veto" episode) make caucusing much more likely.

Thus, as I have written before, the eurosceptic prophecy is self-fulfilling. Marginalisation diminishes influence leading to bad deals, suspicion of a conspiracy and more marginalisation. Onward towards the exit. Cameron told a press conference in Brussels that the government would "take action" if there was any sign of the FU members "encroaching on the single market". And that he would watch out for such encroachment "like a hawk". He didn't say what action would or could be taken.

The main safeguard in the draft fiscal union treaty appears to be in the preamble:

NOTING, in particular, the wish of the Contracting Parties to make more active use of enhanced cooperation, as provided for in Article 20 of the Treaty on European Union and in Articles 326 to 334 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, without undermining the internal market, as well as to make full recourse to measures specific to the Member States whose currency is the euro pursuant to Article 136 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, and to a procedure for the ex ante discussion and coordination among the Contracting Parties whose currency is the euro of all major economic policy reforms planned by them, with a view to benchmarking best practices.

Yes, I know that isn't even a sentence - such is the language of European treaties. Anyway, in something approximating English, this seems to be saying that the FU treaty is recognised as a special deal between some but not all existing EU member states - "enhanced cooperation" - for which a legal framework already exists in the much revised founding treaties of the EU.

The key passage on "enhanced cooperation" in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union says:

Such cooperation shall not undermine the internal market or economic, social and territorial cohesion. It shall not constitute a barrier to or discrimination in trade between Member States, nor shall it distort competition between them.

In other words, cooperation between FU members mustn't formally skew the single market against the non-FU members (Britain and the Czech Republic). In practice, however, some or all FU members could end up deciding on things that would subsequently be put to a full EU Council and comfortably outvote Britain.

To what extent this will happen and what Cameron could do about it are the real questions that should be asked about the changing nature of Britain's status within the EU after Monday.

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

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories