The Conservative Party made much of it’s promise of an EU referendum in the run up to the May 2015 election. They did this even to the showboating extent of having a daring, or attention-seeking, heckler turn up to a United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) event and tell those who turned up to vote Conservative if they wanted a vote on EU membership. It was in the manifesto and over the many months in between the election and the serious negotiations it was constantly caught in the sound-bites put out by the cabinet. But the Conservatives promised a deal sweetener. They would attempt to renegotiate with the EU a better deal for Britain. If they managed to get a good deal, they would call a referendum and back staying in the EU. If not they would reach for the exit door. It was and remains shrewd politics in theory, but has it worked?
I believe the Conservatives are going to experience the curse of getting what they want, which is granted better than the curse of having nothing at all. A part of the problem lies in the deal itself an what it does and crucially does not cover. The quality of it could be said to have been influenced by the background to it.
For many months of the end of last year the Prime Minister David Cameron seemed to be carrying out a form of diplomacy described unflatteringly as “megaphone diplomacy”. Basically releasing sound-bites in the media to restate that the UK was not happy with the status quo and that it could potentially leave the EU. While Cameron’s supporters may believe this was all a part of a shrew tactic to get EU mandarins to open up the negotiating table to him, there is ample evidence that this also fostered much resentment between the UK and potentially crucial allies at the same table. The Polish Ambassador released statements expressing disapproval at how Eastern European migrants were being used as political currency. While the Ambassador directly mentioned UKIP, it is arguable that the Prime Minister did nothing to discourage this inhospitable atmosphere. Cameron’s later visit to Poland featured a very uncomfortable press conference with him standing next to the President of Poland, who evidently did not share Cameron’s concerns about Eastern European migrant worker. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel however evidently had quite enough of this grandstanding. When asked by the media what she thought of the UK Government’s concerns she said frankly that it was time that Cameron stated exactly what he wanted. And now according to Cameron he has got it. So the question remains; what do we have?
The deal includes; protections for financial services from future EU regulation, a reassessment of child benefit payments to EU migrant workers, a mandatory 4 years freeze on EU migrants’ ability to claim in-work benefits, more power for national parliaments in blocking EU legislation and an opt out of the “ever closer union” promise and a commitment to greater economic competitiveness throughout the EU.
There is an old saying that “even a fool can be right once a day”. It was in this tradition that I found myself agreeing wholeheartedly with Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg when he stated that he disagreed with the welfare measures in principle, since it promotes the falsehood that most EU migrants come here for our welfare system. Research consistently shows that most EU migrants who come to the UK are among the least likely people to apply for benefits. Due to them being predominantly young, healthy and easy and willing to integrate healthcare and local government costs are not as large as they are for supporting other migrant groups who struggle more. The irony is that in the name of curbing immigration the government seems bent on cutting off it’s best features. What is more ironic is that as long as the UK economy is healthy then EU migration to this country will likely continue.
The protections of the financial services from EU regulations is both understandable and controversial. Obviously as one of the largest industries in the UK, at face value, there is some logic in protecting goose that lays the golden egg. However for many in the UK this seems like a bitter pill to swallow, especially in some counties that are quite far from the City of London. Only recently mass steel industry closures have hit the north, begging the question from some quarters “where is their bailout?”. This issue has already been used as a political football for the referendum before the date of it was even announced. Nigel Farage of UKIP of course linked the decline of the UK steel industry to the EU, while ignoring the numerous instances of EU member states intervening to save theirs. My own opinion is that both Labour grandstanding of industrial jobs and Conservative grandstanding of the City is deplorable and misses the point. All jobs are valuable and should be treated as such. What would have been far more valuable than this commitment for one industry would be a general EU-wide commitment to put the focus of leaving the responsibility for regulating the industries of member states to the states themselves. It could have been argued that a one-size-fits-all approach is ludicrous for a continent of different economies. In my opinion it would have been worth sacrificing the ludicrous and discriminatory benefit deal just to get this commitment.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been completely untouched by Cameron’s deal, despite compelling evidence that it undermines developing world agriculture. Reform, which is quietly backed by Germany, would likely contribute to lower food prices the world over.
For the most part the “out” campaign is under the direction of actors on the right wing of the British political spectrum, with notable exceptions. Their main talk about championing popular sovereignty brings them close to some inconvenient truths and myths which have not yet been confronted. I maintain that it is both absurd and disingenuous to talk about championing the sovereignty of the people if one stands by the constitutional set up we have now. We stick our blind faith in an unwritten constitution that is chiefly fully understood by academics. We have a system allowed by this constitution that allows the Prime Minister, via the Royal Prerogative powers, to sign any treaty they wish (with or without a parliamentary vote). In recent years we have seen all of our rights eroded in terms of our civil and workers rights, not by the EU but by our own government. Too busy with bread and butter issues we have naively left constitutional matters to settle as a kind of preoccupation of the nerdy. The net result is that this British “elective dictatorship” system rumbles on. At the moment I find myself of trusting the EU more with my human rights and my rights in general, more than my own government. I appreciate the irony, but see it as a natural consequence of events that led to here. There should be no sacred cows when it comes to reforming out government system to fully reflect our values and stand up for our rights. I would be more than happy to have a national veto provision in a future constitution which would allow us to reject any objectionable EU. If such a system grinds the EU system to a halt, then maybe it would provide a vital space for a rethink.