Negotiating Britain’s future in Europe
By Denis MacShane
How does David Cameron handle negotiations with the rest of Europe if he is returned as Prime Minister and moves towards his promised In-Out referendum in 2017? There is even talk of advancing the referendum date to 2016 though how this leaves time for serious negotiations with 27 EU member states is never explained.
Indeed, one problem is that the Prime Minister has never spelt out in terms exactly what he wants to renegotiate. He has demanded unspecified ‘treaty change’ and other senior Conservatives have called for an end to free movement of EU citizens into Britain and a return to the pre-1997 era when Britain had an opt-out from the Social Chapter.
There are also demands from business for ‘completion of the single market’ to include services. But this demand – reasonable in itself – never specifies if that includes for example the biggest service sector of the GDP – health care, or broadcasting where the NHS and the BBC will not easily be opened to full private sector competition from the rest of the EU. Speaking in London (5 February) EU Commission Deputy President, Frans Timmermanns, held up the prospect of EU-wide car insurance driving down the current excessive costs in some countries, notably the UK. But service economy sectors like insurance, pensions, even hotel standards are all part of national culture under control of national laws. Britain, for example, has never had a hotel rating system as in France. Unifying all services under a single EU regime is an ambitious project but not likely to be achieved within 24 months in time for a Brexit referendum in the UK.
But the Prime Minister insists he can renegotiate a new deal with Europe. So how would a renegotiation be carried out? There is a fascinating paper published by the Eurosceptic Open Europe think tank and written by David Frost, one of the best of Whitehall’s EU specialist officials before he left to work for the Scotch Whiskey Association, itself one of the most effective lobbyists in Brussels.
Frost has made some radical suggestions. But will they work? Perhaps his most dramatic is the proposal to ‘appoint a lead negotiator (a Deputy Prime Minister for Europe), with a specific renegotiation unit to lead.’ This has long been the dream of Foreign Office European experts and of many academics writing on Europe, namely to have a high ranking cabinet minister in charge of Europe. And what could be higher ranking than a deputy prime minister?
Frost may relish having a DPM like John Prescott, Harriet Harman or Nick Clegg but it is unlikely any prime minister, and certainly not David Cameron is going to surrender political authority on the very future of the UK and Europe to anyone else. The idea has been floated for two decades or more and never taken off.
Frost then argues that ‘civil servants need to be able to act in a more political manner across all levels, interacting and influencing EU journalists, politicians and MEPs within the European Parliament.’ Again, this may work with the politicized fonctionnaires in some EU member states but goes against a century and a half’s tradition of depoliticised British civil servant norms.
Frost rightly says that two essential requirements for a successful negotiation are firstly ‘having allies’ and second ‘making what you want seem normal.’ Major German and French newspapers have recently criticized David Cameron for being absent from the Ukraine negotiations. Writers briefed in Berlin and Paris openly say that the obsession with a Brexit referendum is now seen a major negative. No-one is sure if Britain will be in the EU after Mr Cameron’s proposed plebiscite.
In a scathing comment Sir Robert Cooper, one of the most admired British diplomats of his generation and who was the most senior official to serve in the European External Action Service, writes in the Financial Times (5 March): “Britain seems without ambition or direction. In a dangerous world, Britain has know¬ledge and expertise to offer but is too small to go it alone. There are Europeans who want to work with us and Americans who will ignore us if we do not.”
As a forerunner of what may be a new isolationist Britain, the decision to withdraw from the political family of the EU centre-right, the European Peoples’ Party, in 2009 has cost Mr Cameron dear in terms of losing Britain allies.
No-one in Europe wants Britain to leave but the assumption that David Cameron has unqualified support from EU leaders is simply not true. Mrs Merkel is now in her tenth year of chancellorship and may decide to leave at the top rather than sink into the status enjoyed by Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Kohl and others who stayed on and on and on. Elsewhere in the Europe the centre-left is back with Hollande and Renzi and other government leaders without mentioning Syriza or the possible arrival of a Podemos in a post-Rajoy government in Spain.
It is hard to see where David Frost thinks the allies for a Eurosceptic David Cameron are to be found. And what is normal to a Boris Johnson, who writes in his Churchill biography of a ‘Gestapo-controlled Nazi EU’ or to Business for Britain with its call for the abolition of free movement of people may not seem normal to other EU partners.
Frost makes the point that British embassies in Europe have been run-down with British diplomats replaced by local staff. Although the UK accounts for 12.5% of total EU population Britain only has 4.3% of EU officials and only 2.5% of all applicants for fast-stream entry as most would-be future EU officials from Britain fail as they cannot pass the required tests in a foreign language.
The constant sneering and attacks on the EU by Eurosceptic politicians, think-tanks and media has worn away any enthusiasm amongst young Brits for a European career. But it means the UK is woefully under-staffed to deliver the renegotiation Frost outlines.
He also says, ‘The Government should seek maximum cross-party support for its negotiating aims.’ The polite response to a very well argued and written paper is ‘Dream On.’ A Conservative dominated government will get very little support from opposition parties or indeed from its own Eurosceptic MPs and of course UKIP with its reservoir of 25% of votes as expressed in the European and local elections last year.
There is much in Frost’s paper which reads like an elegant valedictory on the Foreign Office he served with distinction and style until he went off to the world of finest malts. Alas the days when a superb bit of drafting and some nifty advice to a Prime Minister at just the right moment in Brussels talks did the trick for the UK in its relationship with Europe are long gone. So are the brilliant FCO European corps headed by Lords David Hannay, John Kerr and Michael Jay or Sir Stephen Wall, Sir Nigel Sheinwald and Sir Kim Darroch.
A re-elected David Cameron will become increasingly unpopular as austerity bites and he enters his seventh and eight year as Prime Minister. A referendum will be much on him as on the issue of Europe. Reorganising the entire machinery of government and revitalising the Foreign Office to return it to its glory days on running the EU in UK interests is a noble ambition and a wonderful dream. But it isn’t going to happen.
Denis MacShane is the former UK Europe minister. His book Brexit:How Britain Will Leave Europe is published by IB Tauris.
Negotiating Britain’s future in Europe