Thin gruel

The Guardian reports today that Cameron is still hoping for a quick deal on his reform demands in this month’s EU leaders’ summit.

Will he get it? It depends on how demanding he is. And that in turn may depend less on his assessment of what is genuinely desirable, and more on what his backbenchers are saying.

And so far they have been rather damning:

“Pretty thin gruel,” sniffed Jacob Rees-Mogg.

“Tinkering around the edges,” scoffed David Nuttall.

“Is that it?” blurted Bernard Jenkin.

Well, of course! Cameron must not lose sight of the fact that right-wing Tories won’t be satisfied with anything, so there’s no point trying to satisfy them — all the more so because many of the things they complain about aren’t actually a problem, or have already been addressed.

Take, for instance, the claims that the EU has accrued responsibilities in too many fields. It would be hard for Cameron to argue with a straight face that competences need to be returned to the UK when his own government’s balance of competence review concluded that the list of areas where we work jointly at European level was, er, just about right.

Nor should this be a surprise. The principle of conferral, which is enshrined in the treaty that acts as the EU’s shared rulebook, specifies that we only act at European level when all member countries have agreed that we should do so.

In a similar vein, eurosceptics often quote an alleged fear of the EU turning into a centralised super-state. But articles 4 and 5 of the treaty already specify that the EU

  • may act “only within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the member states in the treaties” (principle of conferred powers)
  • and even then act “only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the member states” (principle of subsidiarity)
  • and even then “the content and form of union action shall not exceed what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the treaties” (principle of proportionality)
  • and it must respect the “essential state functions” of the member states including national security which “remains the sole responsibility of each member state”.

These guarantees were secured by the Labour government when negotiating the Lisbon treaty. And they are guaranteed anyway by the fact that all EU agreements must be approved by national ministers from the member states, accountable to national parliaments. So the idea of a centralised state replacing the countries of Europe is, and must be, a myth.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Cameron’s central demand vis-à-vis our European partners is simply to ask for the preamble of the treaty (the reference to “an ever-closer union of the peoples of Europe”) to be reformulated or interpreted. Indeed, if there’s a surprise at all, it’s the other way around: given the reality of the situation, why has he even put this on the table?

Then there’s the now ritual claim that the EU is undemocratic. The idea that twenty-eight democracies would voluntarily subjugate themselves to a despotic system is in itself implausible. Contrary to eurosceptic mythology, the European Commission can’t impose legislation on countries. It merely puts forward proposals, which ministers from those member states can approve, reject or amend. For good measure, proposals also need the approval of directly-elected MEPs in the European Parliament.

What could certainly be improved in some countries, not least Britain, is national parliamentary scrutiny over the ministers representing them in the EU Council. But this is something that can be remedied at national level, without needing to negotiate with anyone.

So the biggest challenge for Cameron when he meets other EU leaders — if not this month, then later — is not necessarily to secure reforms, but to find a way to convince his colleagues at home that Britain is better off in, whether his reforms are really significant or not.

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