Firstly, my grudging congratulations to David Cameron for getting an agreement with his EU partners in Brussels. This clearly was the better of the two possible outcomes. And at least it makes a positive statement about the man’s stamina! BUT… and it is a big but. When it comes to Britain and the EU, I’m sick and tired of the debate always being about the wrong things.
The first set of “wrong things” is what the EU leaders talked about this week. Three really key challenges right now are:
- The poor state of the EU countries’ economies and the unfinished reforms following the 2007-8 financial crash. Growth in the Eurozone remains pitifully slow and the north/south pressures, typified by the “Germany v. Greece” arguments of the past year, have unresolved issues.
- The humanitarian crisis caused by refugee and other migrant flows at levels unseen since the end of the second world war. A fair and sustainable solution is still far from being worked out.
- The threat of fundamentalist terrorism and the strains it places on the key principle of free flow of people across borders in the Schengen area.
These three issues at least would have been a very heavy, but necessary, agenda for the EU’s leaders to have discussed this week. Instead, we have had two full days taken up with 28 heads of government discussing an issue which is essentially about managing the tensions inside the British Conservative Party. To 27 out of the 28 leaders, this must have seemed like an awful waste of time.
The Wrong Things: UK
The second set of “wrong things” is the list of what Cameron was “battling” for, on behalf of a grateful British public. None of the items would be on my list of reforms, as I explain below:
- The Emergency Brake (4 year freeze on in-work benefits): I’ve worked as a volunteer advisor for a well-known advice agency for over 13 years. In that time, I’ve met very many workers from the newer EU member countries: Poles and Lithuanians above all. I’ve never met a single one who showed any evidence that they came to work in the UK because of our benefits system. Such research as exists shows such workers claim far less in in-work benefits than UK native workers. Expert opinion has stated that the “brake” will have no or marginal effect. No one in the government has ever produced a shred of evidence to show why this measure is needed or will make any difference. So why all the fuss?
- Child benefit: the proposal to index child benefit paid to workers in the UK with dependent children abroad would save only a proportion of the £30m p.a. cost. This is a tiny amount roughly equivalent to the saving of £1 from each £350 spent on child benefit. There will be additional administrative costs to handle the more complex payments system, reducing the savings further. A lot of bother over very little.
- Non-eurozone protection: there are reports that this was Cameron’s most important requirement. It gives the UK the right to force a debate among EU leaders about any new euro regulation we feel unhappy with. And yet the other EU non-euro countries (Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Sweden) aren’t bothered and haven’t sought it. This sounds strongly like just another case of Cameron confusing the national interest with the special interests of the City financiers – who contribute over half the donations to the Tory Party.
- Ever-closer union opt-out: The original 1957 Treaty of Rome in its preamble includes the phrase “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”. Similar phrases appear in subsequent Treaties to which the UK was a signatory. Parliament’s own research department has the details here. Controversy has raged over the decades as to its actual meaning and intent. To me, it does not seem to imply a European Superstate. For Cameron and the Tories, it seems a red-flag symbol they cannot live with. It seems to me to be part of a continuation of “British exceptionalism”, about which I plan to write a future blog post.
My own list of priorities would be utterly different. No space to go into detail here, but it would include things like guaranteeing minimum workers’ safeguards against exploitation, stepping away from adding free market fundamentalist ideas (including austerity) into regulations. Also, certain topics lend themselves to supranational collaboration: tackling tax avoidance, fraud and money-laundering, pollution, climate change, energy security, fighting cross-border crime (including terrorism), to name but a few.
My heart sank when, before the start of the summit, Cameron used the phrase “Battling for Britain”. This dog-whistle soundbite designed to appeal to the Tory faithful was clearly intended to recall the glory days of the war when plucky Britain held out for freedom. But the people with whom Cameron was negotiating are supposed to be our allies, not enemies, for f***’s sake! Think of the goodwill towards Britain we have squandered. It just makes us look mean-spirited, confrontational and parochial. It’s some comfort that EU leaders recognise it’s just a game. They all play it for domestic consumption at some time or another. But, more worryingly, it also gives encouragement to the bigots and xenophobes among us.
The Referendum: My Vote
Of course, I shall vote for the UK to remain in the EU in the planned referendum. The EU is a far from perfect institution and I think there are many ways it needs to be improved. But my instincts are always towards engagement and collaboration rather than confrontation (if it can be avoided). Secondly, a rational analysis of the evidence strongly suggests the UK is better off within the EU: socially, economically, our ability to influence world issues and for our own security.
Cameron claimed in a tweet last night that he had secured “special status” for Britain in the EU. Yes, I thought, “special” as in “special needs” and “special measures”. Not forgetting that supplicant, poignant and self-deluding attachment to our “special relationship” with the USA. So I don’t know who in Britain Cameron thinks he’s battling for, but it doesn’t include me.