According to the news this morning, Cameron has been rebuffed in his attempt to abandon the principle of EU free movement by Angela Merkel.
This can hardly be a surprise. In summary, what’s happening is this. The eurosceptic right within the Conservative party is trying to bounce Cameron into making pledges for EU reform that they know he can’t deliver, so they can subsequently argue that the EU ‘can’t be reformed’. Cameron is so scared of them that he dare not face them down.
Meanwhile, the moderate wing of the party — and those who are not so moderate but close to business! — are becoming increasingly desperate. Last week it was Damian Green; this week, already Michael Howard, Ken Clarke and Theresa May have raised their head above the parapet, despite the risk of being targeted by their less reasonable colleagues.
The key tactic of the hard right is to try to force Cameron to pledge to change the EU treaties, not just its policies. They want him to tear up freedom of movement, opt out of the entire field of cooperation in fighting crime, and repeal European employment standards. These kinds of treaty changes are much more difficult than changing actual policy, because they need every country to agree and then to ratify domestically, and they know full well that this is very unlikely to happen — hence the reported conversation between Merkel and Cameron over the weekend.
Most revealingly, the hard right are also urging Cameron to make a seemingly innocuous and cosmetic change to the declaratory preamble of the treaties, which would have no legal or practical consequence, simply because it would trigger the lengthy treaty change procedures.
As well as being deliberately impossibilist, none of these changes are in Britain’s national interest.
- Dealing with the problems that arise from migration can be dealt with effectively by legislation — mostly domestic legislation — and without bringing an end to the right we all enjoy as EU citizens to live and work in other countries. For example, a sensible British government would crack down on unscrupulous employers who undercut local workers by exploiting migrants: agencies that only advertise vacancies abroad and not locally; employers who don’t pay the minimum wage, and/or dock disproportionate “rent” for tied housing linked to the job; and other such practices. It would direct extra resources to local authorities that have to provide extra services (and bear in mind that the government does indeed have extra money, because EU migrants overall pay in about 30% more in taxes than they take out).
- Opting out of police cooperation measures such as the European Arrest Warrant has up to now been rejected even by right-wing ministers, since every law enforcement agency in the country considers them to be essential. But that does not stop the right-wing flora and fauna — the Redwoods, Foxes et al — from pressing for a pull-out.
- Repealing employment standards to unleash a race to the bottom in the European market would be unacceptable to even the most conservative governments across Europe. So would unilateral British opt-outs for this sector: others would not accept Britain competing in the single market by a different set of rules, undercutting competitors by having lower health and safety standards or less protection for workers. Nor would this agenda be in the interests of the British public. It’s not about repatriating powers, it’s about removing rights from the weak and vulnerable.
Even if all these undesirable objectives were achieved, the eurosceptic hard right would still vote No in a referendum. In the meantime, though, they will do all they can to make sure the next Conservative manifesto commits to making such changes, and this morning’s comments from Merkel are music to their ears.
Tory hardline eurosceptics are the Trotskyists of the right — formulating “transitional demands” in order to cause maximum difficulty for the moderates.