Eureporter 22 May 2015
Opinion by Denis MacShane
In EU negotiations, like in love and sex, clarity of communications is essential. Knowing when ‘No’ means no, and when maybe means not yet and please stop asking for what I can’t deliver is part of the essential vocabulary.
As the UK prime minister arrives in Riga for his first European Council since his return to Downing Street with his small, but his very own, majority the communications from London seem less than clear.
Last week, for example, the headline briefing based on an interview the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, gave the Financial Times, was that: “Treaty change was no longer a political goal.” There was an audible sigh of relief in other EU capitals that finally there read-our-lips message ‘No Treaty Change’ had finally got through to Downing Street.
Today however, in the same paper, it is reported that Cameron wants “full-on Treaty change”. The curious term “full-on” is new in Eurospeak and not one associated with the normally precise unambiguous language of Foreign Office specialists who do these negotiations.
But it does sound as if the prime minister has just reversed his foreign secretary’s denial that Treaty change was necessary.
So once again, the EU leaders, not just the bad boys in Brussels, will have to spell out there is no chance of a new EU Treaty this side of the French and German elections in 2017 and according to the Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, no chance of a new EU Treaty in the lifetime in of the current Commission, which ends in 2019.
By that time Cameron will have stopped being prime minister. If parliaments cannot bind their successors, can statements about what might be in some putative future EU Treaty be considered sacrosanct when a whole team of new prime ministers, presidents and EU commissioners will be place?
According to Bruno Waterfield, the energetic new Brussels correspondent of The Times, the latest demand from Downing Street is that the EU agrees some statement that more than the Euro currency is used in Europe. This may cause some head-scratching in Warsaw, Stockholm and the nine EU member states which don’t use the Euro. But if Cameron thinks he can win the referendum with a statement that zloty, crown and forint are still is circulation why not give it to him?
As with the obsession with the phrase “ever closer union of peoples” which has been in the preamble of EU Treaties since 1957 and which has no legal effect, London gives the impression of wanting to find minor symbols of change that can be brought back to Britain to prove the prime minister has obtained major concessions.
It seems hard to imagine Brussels and EU national leaders bothering too much in signing a bit of paper saying that at the moment when the next EU Treaty is negotiated Britain can have its paragraphs saying that more than one currency is in use or that the British people – maybe by then just the English people – don’t need to worry about getting closer to other peoples.
Whether that is enough to satisfy Cameron’s Eurosceptic ministers and MPs and swing the Eurosceptic press into line for a campaign in support of saying yes to the EU is another question.
Already the briefing has begun about anti-EU cabinet ministers being unhappy about a quick negotiation and referendum. The Eurosceptic think tank, Open Europe, has published 30 reforms it believes the UK should extract from the EU and the Eurosceptic Business for Britain organization has published ten concessions Britain should extract from Europe. These includes limits on European citizens coming to work in the UK.
It is hard to see how this can be achieved without instituting a visa regime for entry into the UK or specific work permit quotas. That would be completely contrary to EU Treaties and would invite immediate reciprocal discrimination against the 2.2 millions Brits who live and work in other EU countries.
British business also lacks clarity with the bosses of JCB and BT – two major FTSE firms – contradicting each other on the BBC this week as Lord Bamford of JCB said he could happily quit the EU while Sir Mike Rake of BT said it would be a disaster.
There have been endless friendly signals from the continent that everyone wants to help Mr Cameron stay in Europe and anything that can be done within the treaties and without breaching core EU law and principles will be done.
But Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and Brussels are all saying No means No on any measure that means an EU citizen working side by side doing the same job as a British citizen will receive inferior pay. And No means No on the idea of changing the Treaty in time for Mr Cameron’s plebiscite which many think has to happen in 2016 before he becomes deeply unpopular as cuts and austerity worsens and the referendum is a vote on him rather than the EU.
Luckily Mr Cameron does not have to make a Commons statement on Riga as parliament does not start work until later next week. But sooner or later he is going to have to make his position clear to his own Eurosceptic party and press, to his fellow EU leaders, and to voters who will decide Britain’s place in Europe and the prime minister’s place in history.
Denis MacShane is a former minister of Europe and author of Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe published by IB Tauris.