The Tories' EU games are undermining their "grown-up" economic message

The threat by Nissan to withdraw from Britain if the UK leaves the EU shows how the Tories' euroscepticism pulls against their emphasis on stability.

As Labour gains ground with its cost-of-living offensive, the Tories have sought to present themselves as the "grown-up" party that can be trusted to maintain economic stability and avoid short-term "gimmicks" that threaten this aim. But this strategy risks being undermined by their decision to raise the spectre of EU withdrawal. On the day that MPs debate Conservative MP James Wharton's bill guaranteeing a referendum in 2017 (and Adam Afriyie's amendment for a vote in October), the head of Nissan has warned that his company could withdraw from Britain if the UK leaves the EU. Carlos Ghosn said: "If anything has to change we [would] need to reconsider our strategy and our investments for the future." Were Nissan to leave, 6,500 jobs at the company's Sunderland site would be lost.

For the Tories, who have made much of the renaissance of car manufacturing in Britain (with output forecast to reach a record high by 2015), it's an awkward message. Of the 30 brands manufacturing 70 models in the UK, Nissan is the largest and recently announced that its Sunderland plant would move to 24-hour production in 2014 to meet demand. With the uncertainty now set to endure until at least 2015, Ghosn's warning is likely to be the first of many that tarnish the Tories' economic brand.

And for what gain? Those who confidently predicted back in January that Cameron's EU referendum pledge would shoot Farage's fox, or even set the Conservatives on the road to victory, have been proved entirely wrong. The motivations of those who support UKIP are too complex and long-term for them to be bought off by the promise of a vote in 2017.

While the public share the Tories' euroscepticism, they do not share their obsession with the subject. As polling by Ipsos MORI has consistently shown, voters do not regard it as one of the ten most important issues. It's true that they overwhelmingly support an EU referendum but as pollsters regularly attest, this merely reflects their general predilection for such votes.

Cameron knows and understands all of the above. One of the principal aims of his speech was to settle the debate, calm his restive backbenchers and move on. But with the focus now likely to shift to exactly which powers he will seek to repatriate, there is little prospect of any relief.

David Cameron gestures during a press conference at the end of the second and last day of an European Union (EU) Council meeting on October 25, 2013 at the EU Headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Brexiteers want national sovereignty and tighter borders – but they can't have both

The role of the European Court of Justice is a major sticking point in talks.

Why doesn't Theresa May's counter-offer on the rights of European citizens living and working in Britain pass muster among the EU27? It all comes down to one of the biggest sticking points in the Brexit talks: the role of the European Court of Justice.

The European Commission, under direction from the leaders of member states, wants the rights of the three million living here and of the British diaspora in the EU guaranteed by the European Court. Why? Because that way, the status of EU citizens here or that of British nationals in the EU aren't subject to the whims of a simple majority vote in the legislature.

This is where Liam Fox, as crassly he might have put it, has a point about the difference between the UK and the EU27, being that the UK does not "need to bury" its 20th century history. We're one of the few countries in the EU where political elites get away with saying, "Well, what's the worst that could happen?" when it comes to checks on legislative power. For the leaders of member states, a guarantee not backed up by the European Court of Justice is no guarantee at all.

That comes down to the biggest sticking point of the Brexit talks: rules. In terms of the deal that most British voters, Leave or Remain, want – a non-disruptive exit that allows the British government to set immigration policy – UK politicians can get that, provided they concede on money and rules, ie we continue to follow the directions of the European Court while having no power to set them. Britain could even seek its own trade deals and have that arrangement.

But the problem is that deal runs up against the motivations of the Brexit elite, who are in the main unfussed about migration but are concerned about sovereignty – and remaining subject to the rule of the ECJ without being able to set its parameters is, it goes without saying, a significant loss of sovereignty. 

Can a fudge be found? That the Article 50 process goes so heavily in favour of the EU27 and against the leaving member means that the appetite on the EuCo side for a fudge is limited. 

But there is hope, as David Davis has conceded that there will have to be an international guarantor, as of course there will have to be. If you trade across borders, you need a cross-border referee. If a plane goes up in one country and lands in another, then it is, by necessity, regulated across borders. (That arrangement has also been mooted by Sigmar Gabriel, foreign minister in Angela Merkel's government. But that Gabriel's centre-left party looks likely to be expelled from coalition after the next election means that his support isn't as valuable as many Brexiteers seem to think.)

On the Conservative side, a new EU-UK international body would satisfy the words of May's ECJ red line. On the EU27 side, that the body would, inevitably, take its lead from the treaties of the EU sans Britain and the ECJ would mean that in spirit, Britain would be subject to the ECJ by another name.

But it comes back to the Brexit dilemma. You can satisfy the voters' demand for non-disruptive control of British borders. You can satisfy political demand for sovereignty. But you can't have both. May – and whoever replaces her – will face the same question: who do you disappoint?

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

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