Greeks and migrants stopped the PM opening his talks on the EU. Trade may be the next stumbling block, writes Brian Monteith
First it was the Euro Greek Debt Crisis, then it was the Migrant Crisis – what will be the next political crisis to blow David Cameron off course from negotiating new terms that will secure the UK’s membership of the European Union?
When Cameron won his overall majority, he sought immediately to take the lead by raising his plans for renegotiation at his first EU summit after the general election. It did not go according to plan.
The Greek debt dominated that meeting and subsequent weeks through summer. All the attention was on what would happen to Greece at the hands of the Germans and how the EU would respond to the Alexis Tsipras’s use of game theory in political bargaining. Cameron’s need for acknowledgement of his concerns about EU reform was barely given consideration and only the British media thought it worth reporting. Interest in the rest of the EU remained focused on the Greek tragedy. Worse, the enforcement of further austerity on Greece awoke Britain’s left to the reality of the EU’s subservience to eurozone demands and ability to ignore national democracy
Cameron then visited individual countries before the next get-together expecting to gain some traction for domestic consumption of his reform agenda – even though he has remained tight-lipped about what it exactly is that he is trying to achieve.
Unfortunately, the Greek debt crisis had now been replaced by the migrant crisis, which had engulfed the media at the end of summer and into autumn. His latest attempt to look influential and gain momentum for reform was dashed as Merkel, Hollande and East European leaders all squabbled about their responsibility for and response to the humanitarian issues before them. Now the EU’s lack of border controls became a threat to EU membership.
Surely there must come a point when the Prime Minister will be listened to, when renegotiation is the lead item on the agenda for EU leaders?
While it must come to pass at some point, there is now looming a fresh issue that is set to upstage him and give further succour to those who say that EU membership is no longer in the UK’s best interests. The importance of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), ostensibly a trade deal between the United States and the European Union, is moving up the agenda and at some point must become an issue for disagreement between member nations that will place Cameron in a bind.
While there are political interests in both the US and the EU that wish to see TTIP concluded so they might promote any benefits during their respective elections next year, the arrival of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader will provide a new focus for UK opposition from public sector unions who fear what it might contain.
And therein lies the problem for EU-philes such as Cameron, Osborne, Mandelson and Clegg – the TTIP negotiations are being conducted in secret and the details will only be known once they have been concluded. At that point, and only at that point, will member states be able to pore over the fine print but will have no facility to amend the agreement; all that is allowed is for it to be agreed to or rejected.
It is this secret nature of the behind-the-scenes discussions that allows conspiracy theories amongst politicians of the left and right to gain traction, be it over the supposed ability of multi-national corporations to sue governments for compensation following policy changes that effect their bottom line – or for the possible enforcement of contracting-out of NHS resources and services to US private health suppliers.
The unintended consequence is that UK politicians of the right and left may both find reasons to oppose TTIP and give David Cameron a real headache. Some Conservatives wish to extol TTIP as great news for jobs and investment, while others see the inability to scrutinise the agreement to any meaningful degree as yet another example of why the EU is anti-democratic and does not work in Britain’s interests.
Already, a similar arrangement to TTIP, the Comprehensive and Economic Trade Agreement (CETA) between the EU and Canada is attracting opposition across Europe. Those already marching on anti-austerity rallies will find a new cause celebre, only this time it could have as its expression in the UK a vote to leave the EU.
The argument would be that TTIP will cost jobs rather than create them, cancelling out the erroneous claims about British manufacturing jobs being dependent on EU membership. Many jobs rely upon trade protected through the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and World Customs Organisation (WCO) where the “most favoured nation status” ensures trade wars are effectively illegal and could not be introduced against the UK, or indeed Scotland, by, say, the EU. But the WTO and WCO rules do not apply to public sector services and if TTIP could be shown to put those jobs at risk, then the balance would be that EU membership could cost jobs and the Prime Minister would be on the back foot, whatever deal he is able to secure.
Brexit may become the only way to stop the application of CETA or TTIP in the UK – or, for that matter, an independent Scotland that would be expected to sign up to such agreements as part of the price of joining the EU.
For those on the right, the criticisms are two-fold, namely that the EU has shown itself unable to establish free trade agreements with the likes of China or India, while smaller countries such as Iceland have already done so. Secondly, the lack of scrutiny, debate and accountability to the UK parliament means any TTIP agreement could be skewed to reflect the interests of other EU nations but have to be accepted by Britain on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
Such opponents argue that being outside the EU would allow the UK, if we so desired, to secure free trade agreements with emerging markets in Asia or the US much quicker – but also on terms that suited the UK and that our politicians could amend.
As the fifth largest economy in the world, there should be no worry that the UK could establish such trade deals; the real question is whether or not we really need them at all. How David Cameron handles this issue could tip the referendum either way.
• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain