DAVID Cameron wrote a six-page letter to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, last week. Read it please.
Tusk is a serious person – a student activist for Solidarity in the port of Gdansk in the early 1980s, he went on to be prime minister of Poland and then president of the European Union a year ago. I do wonder what he will make of a most curious letter.
Having decided in haste to put UK EU membership to the vote as part of a desperate attempt to deal with the extremists in Ukip and his own party, the Prime Minister has done the right thing in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons.
It is right that we subject all institutions to a generational test. But in forming and framing this vote on the back of “reforms” he says he can win to make Europe better, the PM is guilty of the “Fire, Ready, Aim” strategy in politics. He didn’t think it through and risks it all. The letter takes six pages to set out the following “demands”.
He wants “flexibility”. This is presumably as a counter to the growing lobby arguing for rigidity. I would go further and ask for the EU to try harder. Damn it man, we’re British.
There are then four reform themes, the content of which starts vacuous and gets steadily worse.
Economic governance: we want legally binding principles and a safeguard mechanism (Follow? Don’t worry, neither do I) to ensure that:
1) Everyone recognises the EU has more than one currency. (This is not a controversial demand, you will agree.)
2) There should be no disadvantage to a business because of their currency. (Think this through for 34 seconds and you realise it is ludicrous.)
3) The integrity of the single market must be protected (except where we don’t like it, I guess, but yes, few would demur).
4) If the eurozone does something, non-euro countries can volunteer to agree or not (as now).
5) Taxpayers in non-euro currencies should not be liable (as now).
6) Financial stability and supervision is a competence of the Bank of England and we must recognise this (as happens now, so what does he mean?).
7) Issues affecting all member states should be discussed and decided by them. (A radical idea which pretty much applies now).
So in summary, things should pretty much stay the same, with an added layer of “recognition”.
The letter continues:
Competitiveness: we like it and want a long-term commitment to competitiveness, productivity and jobs in the EU. (Now that’s one in the eye for all those countries and parties campaigning against these things.)
Sovereignty: this is the “Clause IV” symbolic bit we are expected to rally to. It means literally nothing. We want a “formal, legally binding and irreversible” commitment to end “ever closer union”. OK, but no parliament can bind its successor in the UK, so the PM might find it harder to deliver this than the EU.
Beyond that we want national parliaments to do stuff as well as the European Parliament, and finally we like the EU’s existing principle of subsidiarity. It’s a fine ideal that the PM could do with enthusing about below Westminster level as well.
Immigration: we are not so keen on so much, thank you. (No change there then.) And that is, well, it.
I suppose if you were in the Cabinet Office and charged with compiling a list of demands that were both do-able and sensible you might have got to something as empty as this lot. By all accounts officials there have been having a pretty torrid time coming up with anything. I don’t blame them. Statecraft? Margaret Thatcher would be embarrassed for them.
I spent some time in Brussels this week. Here’s a secret: our UK and Scottish governments are well served by high quality officials. We also happen to have a pretty outstanding group of MEPs, with one exception. I am guessing they will all be bemused by the Prime Minister’s gambit.
Cameron judges that he can present the response to his letter as a “win” and carry the day much as Harold Wilson once did. My worry is that most of the population have a brain and might spot that this is all a barrel-load of meaningless, trite invention.
The polls suggest that if the PM comes back from negotiations proud of his victory then more people will vote to stay in the EU. His worry should be that a referendum campaign will subject these demands and victories to scrutiny which may find them wanting.
So if we depend on the creativity and negotiating power of the PM and his team, backed as they are by a party and cabinet facing in multiple directions, we may find ourselves heading out of the European Union in less than a year. Time for others to step up and make a case for Europe that really counts.
Last week was our annual remembrance of the end of two world wars born in Europe. The European Union has cemented that peace. And now our unity in the face of common enemies counts. “Warts and all,” our thinking should start from there. The Prime Minister’s strategy diminishes him, Europe and us all. Let’s do better. «