Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Hague speech signals further retreat from EU renegotiation

by Marc Glendening

Foreign Secretary William Hague's recent speech to Open Europe indicates that the government has already given up on the pretence that it can negotiate back substantial powers from the EU.

It is now trying to manage expectations in the long run-up to a possible deal with Brussels should the Tories win the next general election.

The rhetoric now is about 'reforming' the EU with regard to future legislation, not re-visiting the powers that have already been transferred from Westminster to Brussels. 

The idea is to get unanimous agreement between all the member countries for some as yet unspecified changes, rather than trying to decentralise back to the UK control over key areas.

You can't now even slide a non-branded cigarette paper between the government's emerging position and that of the Labour and Lib Dem leaderships. Even the pro-EU British Influence in Europe and Business for a  New Europe are also talking about 'reform' and, just like the foreign secretary and David Cameron, are very vague as to what this actually means.

Vague card

One of the few specific proposals William Hague has come out with recently, is enabling national parliaments in EU states to club together to give a 'red card' to new EU laws. This, by definition, will not affect the 30,000 or so directives and regulations that have already been passed.

Nor is it clear, given the sheer volume of Brussels-initiated legislation, how the House of Commons together with other national parliaments could block new measures. Regulations are imposed automatically on the member states, they are not up for debate and they account for the vast majority of EU legislation.
Directives are largely introduced into UK law through the use of statutory instruments and so are also not even debated, let alone voted on in Parliament.

So who, then, would decide which pieces of proposed EU legislation were to be brought to the attention of MPs and Peers? How many prospective directives coming out of Brussels could realistically be put before parliament? In any case, how could this feasibly be co-ordinated with other national parliaments?

At present the EU treaty enables national parliaments to give the Commission a 'yellow card' but it is only obliged to think again for a while and can then press ahead regardless. In other words, this supposed check, just like the concept of subsidiarity, is pure window dressing. An insult to the collective intelligence of all European citizens.

Because of the logistical nightmare involved with trying to organise this delaying tactic, it has never succeeded in practice (House of Commons Library SN/1A/6297, pdf).


This really is bottom of the barrel stuff from our government. The Tory leadership, having realised that their renegotiation campaign was going nowhere and that they risked an embarrassing failure should they actually put a list of serious demands to Angela Merkel and the other EU leaders, have decided to dispense with what Cameron now dismisses as 'shopping lists'.

The strategy now is to go for the safer option of soft focus 'reform' and vague rhetorical promises of change in the future, rather as Harold Wilson did with his similarly bogus renegotiation prior to the 1975 referendum.

My suspicion is that David Cameron is hoping that he might be able to wriggle out of holding a referendum should his party remain in office after the general election, possibly by blaming the Lib Dems should he need to put together another coalition.

Failing that, the calculation might be that, even if the promise to consult the British people about continued EU membership has to be delivered, odds are that there is a natural majority against leaving. As with Wilson forty years ago, the hope will be that the mere pretence that there has been some sort of renegotiation will be enough to win comfortably. 

Stark choice

While it is true that the Little Europeans start as favourites to win should there be an in-out referendum, given the major task involved in trying to get the electorate to vote for radical change, the government's backtracking on its renegotiation commitment is good news.

It will provide greater clarity concerning the stark choice confronting the British people: to stay in an increasingly centralised and undemocratic EU (with or without yellow, red, green or pink card systems) or to become a self-governing democracy, trading and interacting with the whole world.

written by Marc Glendening - Campaign director, Democracy Movement

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