Some regular readers of this column will groan as I return to the question of the UK’s relationship with the EU. (I have even had complaints from Diplomat subscribers in the past.) But look how our EU membership is shaping UK politics! Recently we had John Major in Berlin pleading for understanding about how the EU is now regarded in the UK, warning that the UK might vote to leave altogether. And now it looks entirely possible that the politics of the EU will determine the outcome of the 2015 UK general election. Whether the Eurosceptic Conservatives win, or we lose again, either remaining shackled to federalist LibDems, or losing to a pro-EU integration Labour-led government depends entirely on how David Cameron chooses to set out his stall.
Firstly, John Major should recall that it was his failure to veto the Maastricht Treaty, as Mrs Thatcher would surely have done, that gave the green light to the single currency. Today the whole of Europe, and indeed the global economy, is saddled with the economic deadweight of the euro. There is no respected commentator who can see an end to the crisis. Even the far-from- Eurosceptic Economist warns of collapse. The best we can hope is that the Germans will allow the ECB to continue easing credit, but the fear is that deflation and then hyper-inflation will follow. The Chancellor is warning that euroland is in danger of holding back our recovery.
Maastricht and the introduction of the euro in 2001 accelerated EU legal integration. Some of us always said it would lead to a superstate, but the EU has always been sold to us Brits as the opposite. (‘Subsidiarity’ was hopelessly oversold; it never was anything but an instrument in the hands of the European centralisers.) So Nice, Amsterdam and finally Lisbon (virtually the EU Constitution) followed. The Conservatives opposed all that when in opposition. In particular, we opposed including home and justice affairs under the jurisdiction of the Commission, the Parliament and the European Court of Justice, not just because it is yet another emblem of EU statehood, but since it is likely, indeed intended, to remove the whole question of criminal justice from national democratic accountability. The UK’s decision to opt-in to the European Arrest Warrant along with 34 other measures is an extraordinary volte face for the Conservatives, leaving the acid taste of betrayal and broken pledges. This compounds the rulings that are making the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights part of UK law, despite the Lisbon protocol that aimed to prevent that.
This just strengthens the impression that the Conservatives have submitted to the general implementation of the Lisbon Treaty and even David Cameron’s hugely popular veto of the Fiscal Integration Treaty at the end of 2012 seems to have had very little effect. We see the City of London falling to the same regulatory zeal that we thought would be reserved for euroland. Even the Vickers banking reforms, which depend upon an exemption from euroland banking controls may be ruled ‘contrary to the single market’ (that ubiquitous pretext for any new EU initiative).
Recently we have had the row about the EU budget surcharge. It is bad enough that the UK now contributes over £11 billion net to the EU budget, which is more than our 0.7 per cent of GDP we pay in aid for the poorest nations. Outside the EU, the UK government would afford more generous assistance to its regions and a substantial tax reduction. The government’s agreement that we should pay another £850 million to the EU just compounds the sense of outrage. This adds to the contempt felt by people when reminded that the EU Court of Auditors has not approved the EU’s accounts for the past 20 years.
Then there is the question of uncontrolled EU migration, which, as John Major himself points out, is making low pay a permanent feature of the UK economy. It also overloads our public services and exacerbates the chronic shortage of affordable housing. As someone who attended multiracial state schools in North London, I feel comfortable with a degree of inward migration. I will always argue that it enriches our culture and admitting those with the right skills makes for a more dynamic economy. But try arguing that the UK should have no right whatsoever to limit the number of EU citizens arriving at our ports of entry. The EU’s southern and eastern borders are porous, and it’s easy to acquire an EU passport in many EU countries. We are applying some draconian and damaging controls on those from outside the EU to compensate. It’s a question of accountability. Nothing in this parliament has been so corrosive of the trust in politics and politicians: the promise to control immigration, and then failing to take the necessary powers to do so.
Both the main parties are languishing in the low 30’s in the polls, despite the collapse of the centre-left LibDems. The beneficiaries are the ‘plague-on-all-your-houses’ parties, like the Greens, the SNP in Scotland, and the populist, anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP). Labour fears SNP in particular, whose vile English-hating nationalism may do them significant damage. But Labour has a structural advantage, because reforms to constituency boundaries were blocked. They can win an outright majority of seats, with 36 per cent of the vote – or even less – if UKIP steals crucial votes from Conservatives in our marginal seats.
If David Cameron fails to calm the debate on immigration and the EU in the coming months so that we are free to talk more about our economic achievements and prospects, UKIP will deliver victory to Labour’s Ed Miliband. The ill-starred Conservative promise of a referendum on the EU lacks traction with UKIP voters, because David Cameron has not yet made it clear that he advocates leaving the EU if we do get what we need in the renegotiation. Nor has he set out what change we need in order to obtain the ‘new relationship’ with the EU that we want. The UK originally voted for a ‘common market’ with a national veto. That’s what we want.
The Prime Minister has promised a speech to address UKIP and immigration shortly. What it says will determine the course of the election campaign. He needs to clarify how renegotiation will deliver the ‘new relationship with the EU’ that he has talked about, ‘based on trade and cooperation’ rather than integration, so we can have things like EU migration quotas, protect the City of London from EU interference, and limit our net contribution. Or we will fall prey to cry that ‘they are all the same.’