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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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times