David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband listen to Angela Merkel address both Houses of Parliament in the Royal Gallery of the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Where Clegg and Farage agree: Cameron's EU renegotiation plan is a fantasy

It will become harder for the PM to insist he can succeed when the europhile and the europhobe both declare he will fail.

Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage have recently encouraged voters to view them as dialectical opposites: Clegg represents "the party of in", Farage the "party of out" (the pair will soon debate each other on these terms). But it's worth highlighting one point on which the two leaders agree: David Cameron's EU renegotiation plan is a fantasy. Back in November 2012, Clegg said of his coalition partner's ambition to repatriate powers from Brussels: 

I want to focus on a proposal doing the rounds – that the best way to improve the UK's position in Europe is to renegotiate the terms of our relationship with the rest of the EU. We should opt out of the bad bits, stay opted into the good bits, and the way to do that is a repatriation of British powers.

That seems reasonable. In fact it's a pretty seductive offer – who would disagree with that?

But look a little closer. Because a grand, unilateral repatriation of powers might sound appealing. But in reality it is a false promise wrapped in a union jack.

Today, at UKIP's Spring Conference, Farage used strikingly similar language to deride Cameron's plan: 

What actually Angela Merkel exposed yesterday is that renegotiation, fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, is something that has been put up by David Cameron to kick the issue into the long grass beyond the next general election. It is not obtainable. It is not achievable. Renegotiation is a con.

For Clegg, renegotiation is "a false promise"; for Farage, it's "a con". Angela Merkel, the woman who the Tories have pinned their hopes on, said nothing during her visit to Westminster to suggest either is wrong (as Rafael wrote yesterday). None of the changes the the German Chancellor cited, such as new rules to prevent "benefit tourism", and greater deregulation and subsidiarity, come close to the grand repatriation (the single market without "all the other stuff", in the words of Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom) that Tory eurosceptics crave (although many merely support renegotiation as a prelude to full withdrawal). The uncomfortable truth for Cameron, as Merkel signalled yesterday, is that there will be no special status for Britain. As she said in her speech to MPs and peers: "Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I’m afraid they are in for a disappointment."

The message was clear: in a union of 28, there can be no cherry-picking. It is true, as Cameron likes to point out, that UK enjoys opt-outs from the single currency and the Schengen zone. But since Britain was never a member of either to begin with, this is not a precedent for repatriation. Were the EU to grant the UK special treatment, the single market would risk unravelling as other member states made similarly self-interested demands. Tory MPs' vision of an à la carte Europe in which Britain, alone among the EU 28, is able to pick and choose which laws it obeys, is one rejected by all those with any significant influence over the outcome.  

Cameron, who has been careful not to publish a "shopping list" of demands (for fear that it will be rejected as insufficient by eurosceptics), is likely to emphasise again that no one goes into a renegotiation "hoping and expecting to fail". But when two figures as polarised as Clegg and Farage, declare alike that he will, it will become even harder to maintain this pretence. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

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

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