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

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle