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
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.