The war behind the smokescreen

David Cameron claims that the Conservative party has united behind his much-vaunted ‘renegotiate and decide‘ agenda for Britain in Europe. But, behind the scenes, forces are marshalling for position ready for a battle of epic proportions — a battle whose opening skirmishes are taking place right now.

Pro-European Tories are being ruthlessly hunted down by hardline eurosceptics. Some have withdrawn from the field, the latest being Laura Sandys MP. Others, including two former Conservative leaders in the European Parliament, have defected to enlist with other parties. Still others are keeping their heads down, choosing to go along with the anti-EU rhetoric for now, and gambling that a largely cosmetic ‘renegotiation’ will allow them to win a referendum victory keeping us in the EU — as several have confided to me in private. Meanwhile, intimidated by UKIP’s flanking manoeuvres, the grassroots of the Tory party edges closer and closer to hardline anti-Europeanism with each newly-selected local candidate.

The field of battle at the moment is about the objectives of the party’s EU ‘reform’ efforts. In an approach that’s ironically redolent of old-style Trotskyist tactics, the Tories’ eurosceptic wing are trying to commit their party to deliberately impossible demands. Their aim is to try to ‘prove’ that the EU is unreformable, or at least to raise the bar so high that anything Cameron might secure seems paltry by comparison, and they can brand it a failure.

Hence the flurry of demands to end the right of free circulation in the EU labour market, which they know would never be accepted by all the other countries in the EU. As they also know perfectly well, not only do Brits benefit enormously from the freedom to travel, work, live and retire elsewhere in Europe, but most of the problems linked to this in the UK can be dealt with domestically (for instance, by making it illegal for agencies to advertise only abroad, clamping down on employers who pay migrants less than the minimum wage to undercut British workers, tightening eligibility for certain benefits) or by modifying specific EU directives.

But taking responsibility for fixing problems doesn’t suit the eurosceptics’ battle plan. Instead, they’re clamouring for a wholesale revision of the entire principle of free circulation, something that would require a treaty revision and thus the unanimous support of every other country, not to mention unanimous ratification by every national parliament or plebiscite. Eurosceptics know that a full frontal attack on a fundamental principle of the EU will quite rightly be resisted by our neighbours — which is exactly what makes this particular tactic so attractive to them.

Indeed, spurious and overly difficult treaty revisions is a favourite demand of Tory eurosceptics. Another attempt to put an impossibilist condition in the Tory manifesto is the idea that the preamble of the European treaty should be altered to end the reference to “ever closer union”. As I pointed out back in March, and as Lord Hannay of Chiswick recently argued forcefully, this is a red herring:

The agreed full text says: “ever closer union among the peoples [not the states!] of Europe, in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity”. This text, far more nuanced than Cameron wants to pretend, was negotiated by the Conservative government of John Major. Anyway, it’s a declaratory preamble which has no legal effect — yet modifying it would require a treaty change, which every EU country would have to ratify.

But red herrings are exactly what Tory eurosceptics need if they are to make progress in their internal war.

The result of all this manoeuvring is that the beleagured pro-European Tories (and those close to the increasingly aghast business community) are struggling to find ‘reforms’ that meet the twin conditions of being (1) acceptable to our European partners and (2) acceptable to mainstream Tory opinion (the extremes will never be satisfied). There ought to be plenty of space for it. But every constructive suggestion they make is shot down by the radicals as insufficient. In particular, their attempts to focus on constructive and achievable policy reforms, rather than institutional gimmicks, is dismissed precisely because they are constructive and achievable. Further reforms to the common agricultural policy, the recent reform of the fishing policy, deepening the single market for services and energy, new trade deals with Asian countries and the USA — all these are deemed insufficient by those who want their pound of flesh.

David Cameron has been making a lot of noise about his success in uniting his famously fractious party behind a common approach to Europe, something which most onlookers would have thought impossible. But it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this apparent ‘unity’ is nothing more than a smokescreen. As the smoke clears, the real worry is that the battle raging behind the scenes will scupper any chance of securing constructive European reforms that would benefit both the UK and our EU partners.

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