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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

If he wants to maintain EU allies, David Cameron needs to set out a clear vision for Britain’s place in Europe

Open Europe's Christopher Howarth has an article on Conservative Home where he argues that the Coalition needs to set out a new European vision.

The Conservative's 'European Vision'.
"Ah.. God, it's a barren,
featureless desert out there, isn't it."
If you find it difficult to predict the twists and turns of the Coalition’s EU policy spare a thought for Britain’s potential European allies.

Yes Britain has potential allies, and far more than it realises. We have never been “isolated” (a favourite expression for the EU status quo lobby), there are and have always been a number of states that share some or all of Britain’s basic
focus on liberal economics and decentralisation, and in the other states the political elites’ centralising mantra conflicts with electorates who are universally more sceptical.

There is fertile ground for those wishing to see a different type of EU, but it will not come about on its own. Europe needs a new vision, and the UK is its most credible potential champion. Unfortunately, the lack of a coherent UK vision is beginning to worry not only supporters of reform in Britain, but potential allies on the Continent.

Take the Coalition’s handling of the German-inspired fiscal pact. While Cameron was correct in asking for something in return for his signature to EU treaty changes, the handling of the negotiations was so opaque that two Parliamentary enquiries have still not worked out what the UK sought to achieve. Many non-euro states started off to a greater or lesser extent sceptical or split on whether to sign up to the pact, rightly feeling uncomfortable about signing away more powers over their budgets to the EU. At first, it looked as if the UK had secured a private deal with Germany, which would see the UK sign up in return for British ‘safeguards’ against the eurozone-17 making decisions for all 27 EU members in the future. But this then turned into a ‘veto’. Britain left the smaller states with an awkward decision, to say no, (potentially on their own) at a substantial political cost, or fall into line. One by one they fell into line, leaving the Czech Republic and Britain as the only non-signatories.

Smaller EU states, for obvious practical and diplomatic reasons, will not wish to stand up to France and Germany on their own. To illustrate, despite Cameron clearly having no intention of signing the fiscal pact, senior people in the Czech government still find themselves worrying that he might strike a deal with Merkel, leaving Prague alone as a non-signatory. Cameron is fond of telling the Czechs that his relative Duff Cooper resigned from Chamberlain’s cabinet over the 1938 Munich agreement. This is well remembered but it would be better if the UK, through active diplomacy, sought to alleviate fears among smaller states that their relationship with the UK is one-way, fluid and insubstantial. In the absence of a clear vision, the Government makes it easy for centralisers to peel away potential allies by portraying Britain as unreliable and secretly wishing to leave the EU.

So what has gone wrong? Firstly it is unclear who is in charge. We have a Europe Minister, David Lidington, who is likeable and capable but not in the Cabinet, and not a part of the Number 10 decision-making circle. In Number 10, there is no one person in control of ‘Europe’; William Hague, George Osborne, Oliver Letwin, Nick Clegg and Ed Llewellyn contend with numerous other issues. Europe can fall through the gaps relegated to a news, diary or party management issue (too often the latter). From outside, the UK’s policy looks unpredictable and momentary. Smaller states can end up feeling that the UK only calls when it wants something, such as a signature on a letter before a summit or a vote on legislation affecting the UK financial services – and the call often comes at the very last minute.

Secondly, as ever, there’s a lack of vision. We need a substantial, thought out and well-articulated vision of the UK’s place in the EU, based on the realisation that the UK (along with other states) needs a more flexible relationship, but that the UK cannot stop states such as France and Germany if they wish to integrate further. Open Europe, working with the All Party Parliamentary Group on EU reform, is currently laying out ideas for what this vision might be (see here, here, here and here).

Once we have a vision, we should sell it to other states and their electorates. For this we need someone in overall charge – a cabinet position for a substantial (cross-departmental) Europe Minister, who can explain the policy, manage relations within the party and be a point of contact for potential political allies in the EU. On a practical note, this Minister should have access to the Prime Minister’s diary so EU leaders do not get chewed up by the Number 10 machine (i.e. to ensure the PM meets the right people and that if the Europe Minister promises something the exact opposite does not pop up in a PM speech).

With the right vision, a Cabinet Minister in overall charge and consistency the UK could start to build up relationships and challenge the current vision of “ever closer union”. It will take time to change impressions, but it can work and could be what others in Europe have been waiting for.

Lastly this Cabinet Minister’s first job should be to oversee the drafting a substantial speech on where the UK sees itself in the EU post the eurozone crisis and potential fiscal union. In short, David Cameron should emulate Margaret Thatcher in making his own Bruges speech. After all, the EU is in desperate need of new ideas. Enlargement, successive NO votes in EU-related referenda, and, most importantly, the decisive blow to ‘ever closer union’ landed by the eurozone crisis are changing the way Europe operates. Britain has a huge opportunity if it has the foresight to take it.


Anonymous said...

Nothing but dithering will happen while Cameron is PM. So nothing is possible before May 3rd's British local council elections. But what if the Tories' electoral results are so bad that there is a spill-Cameron campaign, & it produces a new PM who is decidedly more decisive & pro-British than the current non-entity is? Only then could a genuinely UK-centred & dynamic UK/EU policy emerge, which could then be used to involve the few other like-minded non-centralist EU member states in Britain's EU policies. But, like an "In/Out" UK/EU referendum, it won't happen while Cameron's still our PM. Unfortunately!

Christina Speight said...

I realise that Open Europe does not go along with any idea that Britain should lay down a clear policy of withdrawal altogether

I remain unimpressed by the simplistic UKIP approach that all that is necessary is to get out! There is a mass of detail before we reach that goal. I'm with those who have that goal in mind but the devil's in the detail. We loosely talk of the Swiss model and it is an attractive one.

But twixt here and there is a great gulf of licensing agreements, tax deals, international trade pacts, criminal legal arrangements, and a host of other relationships which would have to be unpicked and reassembled from an independent standpoint by someone who is committed - ie no LibDems!.

It's not as simple as UKIP pretends. Their aim is fine but I'd hate to see negotiations in their unskilled hands.

And there's a word of caution on any referendum! The opinion polls on referenda in advance are hideously unreliable. It's only when the chips are down that opinion hardens. My gut feeling is that we could win an IN-OUT refeerndum now but it';s far from a 'done deal'.. Industry is scared of "letting go of nurse' and frankly UKIPs rhetoric scares them more. They could come down heavily in favour of staying IN and that could be decisive. People would be scared for their jobs. If that were to happen we'd be locked in for a very long time.

Jingoism is great fun but no substitute for a carefully crafted and detailed policy. That's why many comments on ConHome for example scare me.

crapshooter said...

There's no point in calling for a "Vision of Britain's place in the Europe" unless you give some idea of what you think this place should be. Do you favour a relationship similar to that of Switzerland and Norway (who of course are not EU members)? If so, say so. If not, what are the areas of EU competence from which you want Britain to withdraw, how would such withdrawal be compatible with continued participation in other EU policies and what do you think the chances are that other member states would allow us to pick and mix in this way? Wittering on about having Minister of State for Europe the Cabinet is just a distraction.

Open Europe blog team said...

Thanks for your comments. Regarding our ideas for what the UK's position should be, generally as well as in individual policy areas(including competencies to be returned and chances of success in negotiations), see for example
Employment law: http://www.openeurope.org.uk/Content/Documents/Pdfs/2011EUsocialpolicy.pdf
Financial services:http://www.openeurope.org.uk/Content/Documents/Pdfs/continentalshift.pdf
EU structural funds: http://www.openeurope.org.uk/Content/Documents/Pdfs/2012EUstructuralfunds.pdf
Police and crime law: http://www.openeurope.org.uk/Content/Documents/Pdfs/JHA2014choice.pdf
CAP: http://www.openeurope.org.uk/Content/Documents/Pdfs/CAP2012.pdf
Overall vision: http://www.openeurope.org.uk/Content/documents/Pdfs/EUlocalism.pdf

For Switzerland and Norway options, watch this space.

crapshooter said...

Thank you, blog team, for your response.

Yes, I am familiar with your ideas. But, apart from your proposal to opt out of elements of Justice and Home Affairs, they all require the agreement of 26 other member states. Do you seriously think that there is any realistic chance of achieving this? Some further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (over French dead bodies) and the structural funds (over Polish ones) may be possible. But, as the events of December's European Council showed, your strategy for defending the intrests of the City of London didn't work (the others called Cameron's bluff and won); the chances of our securing an opt out from EU social policy are zero; and no other member sate has any interest in repatriation.

Preaching the virtues of localism/subsidiarity when the Germans are demanding a political union (whatever they may mean by it)is hardly going to win us any friends. And in any case the concept is a political principle, not a justiciable legal instrument.

Sooner or later you are going to have to address the EU as it is, not as you would like it to be, and make recommendations which offer a practical way forward. The logic or your position is that, given that you are so opposed to so much of the current acquis, you should be considering how British interests could best be protected from outside the EU, rather than continuing to pretend that you somehow favour continued membership.

Anonymous said...

We need politicians to take us out of the undemocratic EuroSoviet Union. Better off out. British laws by British politicians. British spending decisions by British politicians.

And if we are out, France can cover our net contribution... /sarcasm

If we left, we'd be better off, and EuroLand would be worse off.

Rik said...

The UK has too much given away to Brussels, however it is likely that a golden opportunity will arise throughg which it can be reversed. If not it will be a long way.

Having said that. Cameron needs a clear strategy. He doesnot only need a clear vision and it should even so not necessary be clear to the public at least.
The strategy should however be flexible, so work in both situations (the EU having a shock event (say the Euro collapse) which lead to a new set up. As well as a step by step approach.
It should also cover the next situation. The links with the EU are very complicated it will be difficult to change them technically so changing them with pure ad hoc measures and under heavy time pressure might even make the situation worse as it could create a terrible mess in many areas.

However it is difficult to see him getting one. The trio that is running the show in the UK is imho extremely weak, their main strong point is that the opposition is most likely even weaker. A bit like Sarko. As such pure rubbish but compared to Hollande pretty decent.
Which is probably the biggest problem in Europe 50% of GDP is basically spend by people who donot even have the skills to run a hot dog stand.