Bill Jamieson: EU referendum is not what it seemed

David Cameron declares the EU referendum to be the most important issue put before voters for a generation. Picture: Getty Images
David Cameron declares the EU referendum to be the most important issue put before voters for a generation. Picture: Getty Images
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THE CHOICE is no longer ‘fundamental reform’ or exit but merely about tweaking the status quo, writes Bill Jamieson

So we are clear at last. Now we know what the Prime Minister’s wish list for our European Union membership is about.

It’s not quite about “sovereignty”. Or about the “repatriation of powers”. This has quietly disappeared from the check list. Or even about “fundamental re-negotiation”.

We are as near to a false prospectus as a former PR man could devise. The four points he has specified for discussion are about something else. They are more about stopping the UK from being drawn further into “ever closer union” than about repatriating powers.

Now that, of course, would be a result of sorts. But how ironic that his letter was sent to the president of the European Council. This is an EU body that, like so many others, was never envisaged at the time of our accession and did not come into formal existence until 2009. Thus do these stepping stones to ever further integration keep popping up.

And even on these four points – and particularly on the issue of requiring citizens from other states in the EU to work and contribute for four years before qualifying for tax credits and other payments – there is doubt as to whether David Cameron will get other EU members to agree. Now he says he is open to compromise and reform on these issues.

Fundamental re-negotiation? Surely Conservative backbencher Bernard Jenkin on reading the letter to Donald Tusk – written as much for domestic political endorsement as for the European Council – could be excused his querulous outburst in the Commons on Tuesday: “is that it?”

Little wonder that the great EU referendum question – declared by David Cameron to be the single most important issue put before us for a generation – is failing to ignite the public.

In Scotland – much less affected by the refugee crisis and domestic immigration consequentials that have engulfed continental Europe – there is little visible engagement. The First Minister tersely reasserts the SNP’s support for our continued EU membership and opposition to the Brexit campaign of Ukip and Conservative backbenchers – as if the very suggestion of Brexit is dirt in her mouth and the greater the distance she can put between herself and the “Leave EU” campaign, the better.

Sovereignty? Independence? Who could possibly be exercised by such vague and dusty abstractions? What place is there for these constitutional antiquities in the new international order that the SNP is so keen to embrace? In Scotland the EU issue does not at all come over as a profound question of sovereignty or independence or repatriation of powers – though these were the very issues on which Scots were so intensely exercised barely a year ago.

The problem here is that the Prime Minister’s definition of the core issues for negotiation is so secondary to the larger concerns of membership that he has come to make the matter seem altogether less important and very far indeed from being “the single most important issue facing the British public for a generation”.

I do not at all mean to suggest that welfare payments to entrants from elsewhere in the EU are not important. Of course they are. Proposing differential treatment in this way opens up difficult questions of equity and discrimination. And the idea may well be struck down by the European Court as unlawful. Mr Cameron may not succeed on this point unless the access of UK citizens is similarly restricted – a proposal that would be politically toxic for him.

But this is not, nor should it be, the prime consideration on whether we remain as members of the European Union or leave.

This is to put the cart before the horse. The minutiae of rules governing access to welfare payments to citizens of other EU countries is surely subsidiary to the greater issue of the remit and powers of the national parliament and its ability to accept, strike down or amend legislative proposals from external bodies. And it is on this principle that the resolution of our membership question resides.

And on this same principle there is barely a cigarette paper can be slipped between the definition of independence as desired by many SNP supporters in respect of the Scottish parliament, and that of those in “Leave EU” in respect of Westminster. These are two fundamental issues on which they are not poles apart as the First Minister implies, but most firmly joined: parliament being the sovereign law of the land; and our courts being the supreme judicial authority in the land.

All those other vexing concerns – the four questions; trade and business regulation; taxes and tariffs; currency and defence; agriculture and fishing; border controls and immigration – are secondary to these two fundamental principles.

Had the Prime Minister concentrated on these rather than his four subsidiary negotiating points he might now be gaining more resonance from the public. Instead, he sees “sovereignty” defined as agreement on secondary matters to be reached by negotiation. Even if these matters are settled, who will arbitrate on enforcement? And what of other questions that may arise tomorrow? What thus seems a “settlement” is nothing of the sort. History shows us how such resolution can dissolve before our eyes as politics, personnel and circumstances change. Regaining the lost powers of the UK parliament cannot be obtained by these means.

Thus it is that the choice is not “fundamental reform” or exit but the status quo with minor amendments and exit. And there is every likelihood that the pull of inertia or fear of the unknown will prevail and the UK will opt to remain in the EU.

Don’t imagine this would be a settlement of our membership and that sweetness and light would now somehow prevail. In this outcome we would be left with the prospect, every bit as likely in this context as in the Scottish question, of a “neverendum” – or arguably something worse: a ­profound sense of frustration and entrapment as other EU membership obligations grate upon our own custom and preference and corrode the laws we were once able to vote down or amend as we wished.

This loss of future discretion, so hard to define but so vital requirement of a parliament worthy of the name, will come to bear down heavily once membership has been reaffirmed. And it will have been done so on the most narrow and limiting of considerations.

It is the bigger picture that matters. But that is not what we are being asked to consider. It is something else. If it looks like a false prospectus and tastes like a false prospectus, don’t be surprised that what has been put before us in this “re-negotiation” letter is exactly that.