EU renegotiation: chasing windmills in Birmingham

There is no hope that a renegotiation would be anything but a step towards exit from the EU.

Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them.

Perhaps Cameron will not employ the very words used by Miguel de Cervantes (some on the nationalist right of his party will probably take issue with the quotation of foreign writers) but, if recent statements are anything to go by, that will be the sentiment expressed when talking about Europe. The PM is picking a whole host of fights with the EU, in most cases against everyone’s advice, just to satisfy his Europhobic backbenchers.

From the EU budget to justice and home affairs, from fiscal union to banking union the debate is framed in terms of threats rather than opportunities. In fact, the only time the word opportunity is utilised is when talking about using the process of reform in the EU as an opportunity to remove Britain from more and more chapters of European cooperation.

That’s where the illusion starts. This nebulous concept of renegotiating Britain’s membership of the EU is the biggest red herring in the North Sea. It is used to appease those at the right and extreme right who want full withdrawal from the EU. But it is doomed to fail on all counts.

On the one hand no “renegotiation” will ever be enough for those that want to see Britain abandon the EU. The more meat the PM throws at them the more he wets their blood-thirsty appetite. In fact, in this futile effort to appease them, the PM has been compromising the national interest. The December 2011 “veto” locked the UK out of the room where important decisions about the EU’s future are taken. And the mooted opt out for justice and home affairs measures has been criticised by the police and all those involved in the nation’s security as a massive mistake that will make the fight against terrorism, illegal immigration and organised crime even harder.

On the other hand, such “renegotiation” will not be accepted by Britain’s European partners. The Polish Foreign Minister, a Conservative himself, from a country which has traditionally been considered the UK’s ally, came all the way to Oxford to say as much (£). He expressed an exasperation echoed by most EU member states with the UK’s attitude when in Brussels. The perception among our EU partners is that there seems to be more interest in grandstanding for domestic political consumption than constructively engaging to address the challenges the EU as a whole is facing. Germany, which has always been keen to keep Britain at the core of the EU, is now changing tune, with MPs from both the ruling centre right CDU and the centre-left SPD currently in opposition, saying that there is very little will to accommodate Britain’s demands for a “renegotiation”, exactly because of the spoiled child attitude displayed by the PM at European Council meetings since he came in power.

But good will aside, Britain’s hand if such a renegotiation is ever to take place will be weakened by its relative size and trading relationship with the rest of the EU. Whereas about 50 per cent of our trade is done with our EU partners, only 10 per cent of their trade is done with Britain. You do the maths.

Furthermore, why would other EU member states allow Britain to excuse itself from Single Market rules but continue ripping the benefits of Single Market membership? What is to stop others from making similar requests for exemption from areas the UK considers important? Even if the political will was there, even if Britain had the diplomatic and commercial capital to invest in such renegotiation, any concessions would imply the start of the Single Market’s unravelling, which would cost British business and households dearly.

Not to mention that it sends the wrong message; the more the UK isolates itself, the more it tries to remove itself from areas of European co-operation, the less likely it is to be able to gain support to advance areas that are of interest to us.

So instead of picking pointless battles with imaginary enemies, instead of creating impossible to fulfil expectations, the PM and his Ministers should use the EU’s decision-making structures to build alliances with Britain’s EU partners. Rather than threatening opt-outs and vetoes, the best way for Britain to address the areas of Single Market law it wants renewed is to engage constructively with others in the Council of Minister in reviewing EU laws, improving them when necessary and removing them if they have achieved their objective or have reached their sell-by date.

Don Quixote was told by his humble servant Sancho, "Now look, your grace, what you see over there aren't giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone." The hope is that someone will awake the PM and his Europhobic backbenchers to exactly the same fact.

Some red herring. Photograph: misocrazy from New York, NY (CC-BY)

Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of European Movement UK

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder