ONCE more unto the breach, dear friends. Once more a Conservative Prime Minister heading to Europe – battle lines to be drawn, powers to be fought over, and with faint whispers of domestic treachery in the air. Tory Party history is littered with leaders who have met their ends on the political battlefields of Europe; David Cameron will have to play a tricky hand pretty deftly if he is not to become another casualty.
Thus far, we have witnessed the standard political trick of the proverbial can being kicked down the road. With the euro crisis finally limping to what must be its denouement and the 17 countries that comprise the eurozone now potentially forming their own fiscal union – in essence a brand new country – the end of that road has been reached.
As they say though, necessity is the mother of all invention and opportunities are often borne of crisis. The potential development of what we could deem a “multi-speed” Europe could be advantageous to Britain’s interests, in the sense that the EU would no longer feel the need to force all member countries to adopt EU-wide legislation and the kind of regulation that has choked off economic growth for years, and instead simply focus on the things that need to be done.
However even the most casual of EU observers will have noticed over the years the institution’s tendency for overbearing mission creep, so there are a number of pre-conditions prior to any potential new treaty being signed that the UK, in the guise of David Cameron, must fight tooth and nail for in the coming days.
The first of these involves protecting our financial services sector. Whisper it, but those awful bankers we hear so much about actually contribute a huge proportion of our GDP and our tax receipts. Many a year has passed in which continental Europe has looked upon the City of London with envy and the most recent attempted assault on it has been the proposal of a financial transactions tax.
Yes, it would be EU-wide but, owing to our dominance in this area, it would find the UK contributing somewhere around 80 per cent of the total tax take. Clearly it is not in the our interests to allow this tax to pass and David Cameron must ensure that a multi-speed Europe in no way provides a back-door route for a block of 17 countries to have EU-wide powers of financial regulation without having first to seek unanimity in the EU as a whole.
The second involves the repatriation of powers, and this is where David Cameron can really make his mark. By definition, a multi-speed Europe would not be uniform; 17 countries would be bound together in fiscal and monetary union, while the remaining 10 would remain free to enjoy the benefits of sovereign currency and fiscal autonomy.
If that reality can be understood and embraced, then there is no reason why other areas of current EU involvement should not be allowed to exist on a multi-tier plain. Employment regulation, the much-loathed Working Time Directive, all those things which are entirely superfluous to the free movement of goods, services and capital (that good stuff signed up for as the Common Market); all these should go, and we should demand, before any treaty is signed, that they are washed away from existence.
It is currently estimated by civil servants here in the UK that a third of their time is taken up simply trying to deal with the ceaseless tide of EU regulation. And this is before they spend another great portion of their time inventing new regulations of their own for us to live by.
This situation cannot continue, and the next few days provide, while maybe not the perfect, the best opportunity we have had since we joined the European Economic Community – as it was then – to reformulate and reconfigure our relationship with Brussels.
Will David Cameron succeed? Who knows, but don’t bet against reports emerging in the coming days of a “victory for the PM” when all the salient facts lead you to believe that it was, in fact, a defeat.
You might remember earlier this year David Cameron promising to go to Brussels and demand that the EU budget would not be increased next year. That budget was finalised last month and the Government boasted that it had helped secure an “excellent deal for the UK” by ensuring that the budget would increase by “only” two per cent. A victory why? Because the EU had wanted five per cent.
The coming days must see David Cameron fight, not just to secure the status quo, but to actively ensure that the UK gets a better deal in any future EU configuration. It’s probably best not to hold your breath, but certainly do not let any media spin con you into viewing a loss as a strategic victory.
The eurozone’s troubles are not going to go away and even fiscal union will not provide the magic bullet to solve its woes – in fact, for vast swathes of Euroland it might well make things far worse – but the coming days mark an opportunity. Our Prime Minister must fight hard, and with guile, if he is not to become just another Tory leader who fell in battle with the EU leviathan.