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

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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage