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Britain and the EU – a sorry tale of collapsing influence and dishonest debate

Without EU 'reforms' he may not even recommend a 'yes' in the referendum on membership in 2017, says British PM. But what he asks for is mostly there already.

Press conference with Angela Merkel and David Cameron, 2014 Press conference with Angela Merkel and David Cameron, 2014.Flickr/ German embassy, London. Some rights reserved.Britain's standing in the EU has never been lower. Over the last decade, the UK's influence round the summit table has fallen to lows unimaginable even at the worst points of the Tories' last implosion over Europe in the late 1990s. Day by day Cameron's pronouncements take Britain ever closer to the exit door, encouraging the British public towards scepticism and Britain's EU partners towards irritation or, perhaps worse, disengagement from the UK and its endless, ill-informed Little Englander EU debate.

Whether this sorry tale of mishandled summits and relentless chasing of UKIP's tail can be turned around, and the UK return to the levels of influence it had even 10 years ago, as one of the largest three member states, is a question that depends first and foremost on who will be in government after next May's general election. It also depends on a return to sanity in the British European debate and an understanding of the factual and political realities of today's EU, rather than the current debate based more often on ignorance, lies, distortions, and almost complete detachment from the interests and concerns of the other 27 member states.

Since Margaret Thatcher was pushed out of office in 1990 over her intransigent (by then) EU stance, it is notable, over the last quarter of a century, that the UK's standing and influence in Europe has always fallen sharply under successive Conservative governments (the end of Thatcher's government, then Major and now Cameron). Labour, after 1997, rebuilt British influence, but the decay in the last few years means that even a majority Labour government would face a formidable challenge, if they win next year's general election, to do so again.

The growing scepticism of the Conservative Party down the years is easily seen – the idea today that a Conservative Prime Minister might have to resign for being too trenchant a eurosceptic is inconceivable unlike in 1990. At the same time, through much of the 1980s, Thatcher actually showed an ability to bargain and to work strategically for her government's goals in the EU, something that today Cameron appears incapable of.

‘EU reform’?

David Cameron says the EU needs reform and that he has a plan, a reform demand echoed by the other party leaders from Ed Miliband to Nick Clegg to Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP. It appears, given the narrow context of the UK debate and the howls of the eurosceptic press, that no opposition leader dare says there is no need for reform and that UK priorities can be met within existing EU processes, structures, and institutions. Yet the substance of these reform demands is barely spelt out.

Where they are, most or all could be achieved within today's EU. At the same time, it is remarkable, and ironic that these intense demands for 'reform' come from a member state that has in recent years been obstructive and critical, with opt-outs that make it a more 'special case' member state than any other, and that has presided over its own collapsing influence, undermining the UK's ability to fight successfully for its interests in the EU as it is, let alone for substantive reforms.

It is also notable that these demands for reform from the Cameron government come at a time when the UK has neither a clear overall foreign policy nor, relatedly, any EU strategy in terms of current policy goals, priorities and how to achieve them beyond the current inchoate demands.

The emperor has no clothes

In 2012, Cameron launched an indepth competences review, which has led to various indepth reports but as yet no indepth government programme of reform. Earlier this year, Cameron did set out seven demands for EU reform in the Telegraph (signalled again more briefly in his recent CBI speech). They are a strange mix of things that already exist or are possible within the EU as it is, or that are vague and close to meaningless. Yet Cameron says without getting these 'reforms' he may not even recommend a 'yes' vote in the referendum on membership he would hold in 2017, should he be in power.

The first demand, as Cameron wrote in the Telegraph is for: "powers flowing away from Brussels not towards it". But the EU has always had a principle, clumsily known as 'subsidiarity', that says actions should be taken at the lowest level possible (i.e. local, regional and national before EU). And the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force 5 years ago, spells out in much more detail what this means (as the UK wanted). Cameron also wants the UK to opt-out from the EU's founding vision of 'ever closer union', even though in practice this part of the EU's overarching statement of purpose has no legal impact – it is the detail of the Lisbon Treaty that establishes what the EU can choose to do together and what not.

Cameron wants national parliaments to be able to work together to block unwanted EU legislation. But the Lisbon Treaty already has a 'yellow card' system that allows that to happen and so far, when it has been used, it has had considerable impact (as analysed in detail in a Centre for European Reform study a year ago).

Cameron wants more free trade between the EU, US and Asia. Yet the EU regularly, for better or worse, participates in global and bilateral trade negotiations, such as the current transatlantic talks, on a free trade basis. Cameron seems once again to want what is already there. Indeed, in one rare recent example of European cooperation, the UK even wrote along with 13 other EU trade ministers asking the European Commission to support secret investor courts as part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations. That the EU – and UK – may back such courts is shocking but the UK's involvement suggests Cameron can perfectly well push for what he wants within today's EU.

In his March Telegraph article, Cameron also said he wanted 'free movement to take up work not free benefits'. As the migration debate in the UK intensifies, led by UKIP with Tory backbenchers joining in the hue and cry, Cameron has in recent weeks changed even that commitment to free movement of labour, wanting to put major limits on it, yet it is a fundamental building block of the EU's single market, something in the past supported by both Labour and Conservative governments. And for good reason. A recent indepth study showed that EU migrants in fact contributed around £20 billion net to the UK finances from 2000-2011, contrary to the shrill eurosceptic denunciations of free movement from Cameron, UKIP and others.

With Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel making clear recently that undermining free movement is not acceptable and that Germany might in that case rather accept a UK exit from the EU, and with the European Court of Justice ruling against easy access to benefits, is there in fact anything left for Cameron to demand on migration, while the UK remains in the EU? It would seem not, other than some tweaks to benefit systems that the UK can do, once again, within existing rules.

Cameron's reform demands are all of a similar pattern. On police and judicial cooperation, he wants (in his Telegraph article): "our police forces and justice systems able to protect British citizens, unencumbered by unnecessary interference from the European institutions, including the ECHR" (the European Convention on Human Rights). Yet the UK alone got a special opt-out from all such EU justice and home affairs measures under the Lisbon Treaty, and its long-suffering EU partners then gave it the right to opt back into any measures it chose, a generous offer which the Tories then mis-managed in the recent fiasco in the House of Commons over the 'non-debate' on the European Arrest Warrant (when the UK did indeed opt back into some but not all judicial cooperation measures).

Cameron also conflates the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights overseen by the Council of Europe – which as he knows is an entirely separate organisation from that of the EU. That the Tories would take the UK out one of the world's most respected and important human rights conventions, which the UK itself played an important role in establishing in 1948 as part of the new European order after the second world war, shows how far they have travelled from normal European democratic commitments – but Cameron did indeed signal this as possible at his 2014 party conference.

But on top of that to confuse a list of EU reforms with the Council of Europe is careless indeed, if not deliberately done to stoke euroscepticism. It opens up the question of how the EU would react to one of its member states not being a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, and a member of the Council of Europe, something that was required of the new member states from central and eastern Europe before they joined the EU in 2004.

Finally in his list of reforms, Cameron says he wants the EU to keep bringing in new members (a long-standing UK position) but with new measures to stop 'vast migrations' across the EU. But every new entrant to the EU has to sign an accession treaty, often with transitional measures to limit free movement, to limit budget receipts and so forth. This is already possible – it simply depends on the accession negotiations and accession treaty agreed at the time, where all member states have to agree unanimously.

It seems, through the shifting sands of Cameron's demands for EU reform, that the emperor has no clothes – most of these reforms are either already the case, can be achieved within the existing EU rules and structures, or, in the case of free movement of labour, would so undermine the core of the single market, that they could never be achieved.

The main purpose of the demand for reform is simply to attempt to win back voters from UKIP and to satisfy, for now, the sceptic Tory backbenchers. Cameron is not the first UK leader to put dealing with a domestic political challenge ahead of the pursuit of a rational strategy towards the EU, but the extent of damage done to the UK's influence in Brussels in the process is probably without precedent.

Feeding euroscepticism

The UK has certainly been one of the most difficult members of the EU in its four decades of membership. But it has also exerted substantial influence – both through its politicians and its diplomats – from driving the programme to complete the single market to working closely with Germany in particular after the Berlin Wall fell, to enlarging the EU to the central and east European countries. Even in areas such as the euro where it decided to obtain an opt-out, the UK was at the table, influencing the shaping of economic policies, structures and decisions.

With its opt-outs from the euro, judicial and home affairs, the 'Schengen' passport free area, and its budget rebate – won by Margaret Thatcher, which it retained even after the much less wealthy central and east European countries joined – the UK has clearly argued both hard and successfully for its perceived interests, and been given very substantial flexibility in its membership by all the other EU member states.

In the last decade, British influence has continued to shrink. Under Tony Blair, even after the disaster of the Iraq war which split the EU – and with Blair's predilection for forming his strongest relationships with the most right-wing leaders (Berlusconi in Italy, Aznar in Spain) – the UK was still seen as one of the 'big three' along with France and Germany.

Today, the UK has few allies left. The current government, and Cameron in particular, has failed to build deep relationships with other member states that will give support and understanding when tricky domestic issues arrive or that will inderpin joining together on common agendas and so maximise or add to British influence in EU decision-making.

It is the case that under Gordon Brown, some lessening of influence had already begun, as Brown took the EU less seriously than Blair had. One sign of this was rather publicly demonstrated when Brown early in his premiership in 2007 chose not to join the other then 26 leaders in signing the Lisbon Treaty. He arrived two hours later and signed it on his own in private (something, ironically enough, that arch sceptic William Hague criticised him for). But at that moment, the governing party still had ministers and backbenchers who took the EU seriously and, mostly worked with Britain's diplomatic experts to promote UK policies in Brussels.

Nor is the current loss of British influence much related to the UK's lack of membership of the euro, and the continuing fall-out from the euro crisis. Other member states not in the euro, such as Sweden and Poland, have made sure they retain influence, and in particular have remained at the table and are part of discussions around the euro crisis, budget rules and so forth, where the UK too often has stood aloof, despite its own deep economic crisis since 2007. The UK was in a strong position to make allies among those not in the euro, to build on the goodwill towards it from the new members (as they were in 2004) from central and eastern Europe, that the UK had supported in joining. Instead, with the shrill debate over migration, the detachment (and sometimes crowing) over the euro crisis, and the intense demands for 'reform', presented as if none of the other 27 member states had interests that could compete, the UK has lost allies and friends.

Cameron has clearly been swayed in his approach to the EU by the pressures of UKIP's growing success and by the loud voices of the many eurosceptic backbenchers, and some cabinet members too (even appointing eurosceptic Philip Hammond to be foreign secretary – who has said without 'reform' he would indeed vote for the UK to leave the EU).

The virulently eurosceptic tabloids and broadsheets have doubtless been influential too. In addition to this, Cameron himself seems to have little understanding of, or competence in, the strategic games and relationships that are a vital component of influence in the EU. Three years ago, Cameron vetoed the attempts of the other 26 member states to set up new fiscal rules and structures at a key juncture in the euro crisis. Instead of the threat, and then use, of the veto resulting in Cameron securing his demands, the other 26 simply set up parallel structures through an intergovernmental treaty. This dismal lack of tactics or skill in European politics appeared to have been aggravated by Cameron not asking for and/or not listening to tactical and strategic advice from key British diplomats to the EU at this time.

Cameron's failure earlier this year to block Juncker being appointed as European Commission president once again suggests a lack of understanding of the political and strategic subtleties of high-level EU politics, including a failure to recognise, and to think strategically about, the new powers the European Parliament has – through the Lisbon Treaty – to influence the appointment of the president of the Commission.

The recent budget row – over the extra €2.1 billion contribution – again shows the UK at its worst. While the Commission surely deserves some criticism for its timing, Cameron first turned it into a mini-crisis, egged on by UKIP, backbenchers and the eurosceptic media, and then pretended that he and George Osborne had halved the amount, when he belatedly realised that this was a gross amount, not net, of the UK standard budget rebate (which the Financial Times rightly called 'a financial sleight-of-hand'). This was swiftly followed by the mis-handled House of Commons debate fiasco around opting back into the European Arrest Warrant.

Overall, Cameron has positioned himself in many ways in the worst of all possible worlds. He has lost both for himself, and for the UK, friends and allies in the EU, and he has looked weak and chaotic in the domestic context. Far from limiting the continuing rise in support for UKIP, his increasingly eurosceptic stance is trying to appease the unappeasable – those who will be content only when and if the UK leaves the EU.

Can the UK recover its influence in the EU?

The UK's loss of influence in the EU is self-inflicted. But the key question now is can it be remedied? This will depend very much on the outcome of next year's general election.

If Labour are in power, Ed Miliband has made it clear he will not support a referendum on the UK's EU membership, though he will push for some reforms in the EU. If Labour has a majority then it is conceivable that the slow hard work of rebuilding relationships at political and diplomatic level can begin, together with rebuilding support within the UK for the EU.

It will not be an easy task, given the UK's EU debates of recent years – and also not least when the EU is facing its own failures from the euro crisis, with member states' politics in flux in the face of imminent deflation, appalling levels of youth and adult unemployment, and deepening foreign policy crises on the EU's borders.

However, with a new Commission with a five year mandate, a new European Council President, and with Juncker promising plans to stimulate €300 billion of investment across the EU over the next three years, it is an opportune moment to start playing a positive and strategic role again, something Labour did back in 1997 after an earlier period of Conservative infighting and obstructionism in Europe.

But given the flux in current UK politics, and Labour's shrinking or vanishing poll lead, Labour could well be forced into coalition – whether with the  Scottish Nationalist Party, the Greens (if they made a breakthrough) or the LibDems. This may not lead even so to a referendum – the LibDems have flip-flopped on this with their Conservative coalition partners, most recently refusing to support a referendum bill as the Tories would not give them concessions on the 'bedroom tax' and otherwise saying there should be a referendum if the EU acquires any new powers. The Greens do support the EU and a referendum but the chances of their having many MPs is very low.

However, the SNP, who broadly support the EU, could well hold the balance of power. SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said if there was a referendum, Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) should have a veto if England voted 'no' (a risky strategy – sensible from a federal UK point of view but not if an eventual new referendum on Scottish independence is the aim, since then England would surely demand a veto). Any of these coalition partners with Labour could conceivably play a positive role in rebuilding British influence without the government having to hold and win a referendum on EU membership.

If the Tories got back into power, most likely in a coalition of some sort – or with the implicit support of UKIP and perhaps LibDem MPs – then there would be an EU referendum in 2017. If the UK voted 'yes' to staying in, with whatever 'reforms' Cameron had achieved, then the UK would still be in the marginalised and uninfluential position described here, with little chance of the UK's influence increasing in such a political scenario. Cameron would be leading a marginalised UK, and there is no reason to imagine his lack of foreign policy and EU nous, and his ready giving in to eurosceptics, as demonstrated throughout his current term in office, would suddenly change.  

If there was a referendum and a 'no' vote, then the UK would discover, as Norway already has, that being part of a European economic area with the EU but not being a member state creates a considerable democratic deficit. At that point too, the Scottish independence debate would surely revive, if a majority vote in England but not Scotland had taken the UK out of the EU.

Britain's position in the European Union today is a very sorry tale. Whether the outcome of next year's general election will point to a positive route back to British influence and strategic success at EU summit tables is too early to say. Before then, we can surely expect more debate, informed and ill-informed – sadly, mostly the latter.

About the author

Kirsty Hughes is a writer and commentator on European and international politics. She has worked at a number of leading European thinktanks including Chatham House, Friends of Europe, and the Centre for European Policy Studies and has published extensively including books, reports and as a journalist. She has also worked as a senior political adviser in the European Commission, for Oxfam as head of advocacy, and was CEO at Index on Censorship.


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