The forthcoming referendum on the UK’s EU membership leaves no possibility of avoiding an honest debate about the EU, which successive governments have done since the days of Margaret Thatcher. The new government has been quick to introduce the EU Referendum Bill and the Prime Minister has opened the renegotiation with our EU partners. The question is: what exactly is the UK government asking for?
David Cameron has been clear in many statements. He told the BBC back in 2014, “We want to be in Europe for trade and cooperation but we say no to the no-borders scheme and we say no to the eurozone. We want our membership of this organisation to be about cooperation between nation states, not the building of a superstate.” Polling shows this sentiment is not confined to the UK. The Eurobarometer opinion surveys show a rising tide of EU-scepticism amongst our fellow Europeans. However, in virtually every government except the UK, EU governments seem determined to look the other way, or blame this on the economy, or to draw the conclusion that their answer is ‘more EU, not less.’ Other EU governments see David Cameron as bending to pressure from anti-EU elements in his own party, and to a hostile press, but this is just avoiding the substance of the real questions that the renegotiation must address.
The present EU treaties and their institutions take little account of the fact that the UK does not want to be part of a monetary or political union. In a speech last year to a pro-EU think tank, the UK Chancellor George Osborne spelt out the dilemma: “If we cannot protect the collective interests of non-eurozone member states then they [meaning ‘we’] will have to choose between joining the euro, which the UK will not do, or leaving the EU.” Resolving this requires what the prime minister has described as “full-on treaty change.”
There is frequent reference in the news to ‘the eurozone’ as though it was an entity, which is distinct from the rest of the EU, but it is not. The EU remains a single constitutional, institutional and legal construct, where all member states are subject to one Commission, one European Parliament, one European Court of Justice and one body of EU law. All member states, including the UK, are bound to the process and reality of EU centralisation. This is taking us towards second class membership in an emerging federal state.
The suggestion that the treaties should recognise that the EU has more than one currency, or the casual offer of a ‘two speed or ‘two tier’ EU under the present treaties, or the removal of the words ‘ever closer union’ from the treaties, or some declaration to that effect, or even the debate about EU migrants’ access to benefits, are just trivial matters. This is a federal structure, driven by the EU Court of Justice, which is adjudicating in much the same manner as the US Supreme Court drove the empowerment of the US Federal government in domestic affairs. In the UK, the supremacy of EU law arises from the 1972 European Communities Act, which incorporates all the EU treaties from Rome to Lisbon. In order for the Prime Minister to match his Bloomberg commitment, that “it is national parliaments, which are, and will remain, the true source of real democratic legitimacy and accountability in the EU,” the UK’s national Parliament must be able to decide such vital matters as the level of UK taxpayer contributions to the EU budget, what regulations should apply to UK business, how to control immigration from the EU, and the UK’s trade relations with non-EU countries.
Returning to the House of Commons on 23 March from the EU summit, David Cameron declared the renegotiation is “an opportunity to reform the EU and fundamentally Britain’s relationship with it.” Did he mean it? There is little if any indication that the government is even asking for significant reform or fundamental change. In particular, there is no sign of any proposal either to end the supremacy of EU law over UK law on ever wider matters, or to resolve the question of what should be the relationship between the eurozone and non-eurozone states.
To many international observers, and our European partners in particular, the UK can appear to be just out to cause trouble, whether we are represented by a prime minister like Wilson, Callaghan, Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown or Cameron. Even Heath only took the UK into the European Communities 40 years ago because we had “the veto” and he said its removal would “imperil” the European Communities.
The serial breakdown of the UK-EU relationship is something we should seek to resolve finally, by recognising that a different UK-EU relationship would not make us bad Europeans. Good Europeans should be confronting the EU’s failing political and economic model. We Brits warned about the perils of economic and monetary union – and look at the disastrous unemployment being inflicted by the euro on many EU economies today. The EU is the cause of political instability and the rise in extremism across Europe. The British would be bad Europeans to go along with the present failing centralising agenda. A referendum vote to leave the existing treaties would be far more honest than continuing to pretend we agree with what the EU is becoming, and would be the positive catalyst for change we need in Europe. Without fundamental change, the best interests of the UK, Europe, the wider world, and the cause of peaceful international cooperation, would be advanced by the UK leaving the EU and pursuing a different relationship with our EU partners.