Friday, 14 February 2014

Britain's European re-negotiation: ever feel like we've been here before?


Prime Minister David Cameron's hopeful traverse of the European diplomatic landscape is surrounded by the uncanny feeling that we've all been here before. All because, well, we have.

Mr Cameron's trawl through the usual cables and cabals is unlikely to get all that far. The French have already told him as much, and his own party is becoming restive at the prospect. The basic flaw in his reasoning is this: he's allowed the word to get about that he wants major concessions. He wants Britain to be able to change immigration rules within the European Union. He might like separate UK trade delegations at major international conferences - and some rights to sign whatever customs treaties a Westminster government might like to enter into. He might want Parliament to be able to exercise a veto over specific laws the House of Commons doesn't like. But he's not got the slightest chance of securing any of those really big outcomes. They were all on the wish list the last time the British wanted to stand at the European door, heckling and throwing bread rolls: between 1955 and 1963, when successive Conservative and Labour governments tried to negotiate a wider, baggier, looser form of union than leaders in Bonn and Paris thought wise.

Where did that get them? Vetoed out of the whole thing by General de Gaulle (above). Twice. Continental Europeans correctly divined that, without a single trade policy and a single Common External Tariff, the whole adventure was going nowhere. The British would just institute whatever policies they wanted, and let the goods and services flood in (or out) - punching hole after hole the walls around a burgeoning single market that might then not then get off the ground at all. Canny old de Gaulle would have been proved right about the British after all - they really were 'fundamentally different' from other Europeans.

Since then, of course, the single market has been 'completed' - though it's far from working perfectly, riddled as it is with non-tariff barriers to trade and investment, and with some corruption. But the logic is the same. If the UK is allowed to have its own trade policy, and an a la carte approach to legislation, the project might fall apart everywhere. This simply just means that it won't happen.

Although, come to think of it, maybe that isn't so much of a flaw after all from Mr Cameron's point of view. What that'll mean is that the Foreign Office will be able to broker some much more watery agreement - on fisheries, perhaps, regional aid, the EU budget, external migration barriers and the like. Then he'll declare 'game, set and match' to Britain, come home to Parliament, recommend the deal to the public and win his projected 2017 referendum. It's exactly what Harold Wilson did in 1974-75, and it worked a treat then, too. Polls show that, were the Prime Minister to recommend a 'yes' vote after a renegotiation, voters would probably follow his lead. Without any changes, it'd be a damn fine close run thing indeed. So this way, he gets to win a referendum, not upset the European apple cart all that much (since he needs other leaders to back wider reforms), and look a bit Eurosceptical into the bargain.

Cynical? Us? Well, maybe a bit.