A speech I gave yesterday, 15 October 2014, to Forum 2000 in Horsforth, West Yorkshire
In January last year, the Prime Minister announced there would be an in/out referendum in 2017 after a renegotiation of the terms of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, if the Conservatives win the general election next May.
Last month we had an in/out referendum on Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom. Some renegotiation of the terms of Scotland’s membership was promised if the vote were No. Continued membership of the EU was one thing the Yes and the No campaigns had in common. The other, by the way, was patriotism.
Last week, UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, won its first seat in the House of Commons and on Monday it was announced that UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, would be invited to take part in the leadership debates in next year’s general election. UKIP wants complete withdrawal from the European Union,
Are we at an historic turning point or is this life as usual? I’m going to try to shed some light.
Prospect of an EU referendum
The last in/out referendum was in 1975, when 64.5% voted to remain in the European Community (as it was called then) and 35.5% voted against. The turnout was also 64.5%.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats oppose – at least at the moment – a new in/out referendum. The Liberal Democrats say it is unnecessary, although they favoured such a vote at the time of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.
The Coalition Agreement pledged to “amend the 1972 European Communities Act so that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power, or competences, would be subject to a referendum on that treaty”. This was done in the European Union Act 2011.
But the Prime Minister wants to go further. What he wants to renegotiate is not clear. My internet searches have failed to find much. But, according to the Conservative European Parliament elections manifesto last May, there are seven things: return of powers from Brussels and reducing the cost of EU administration (that’s one!); national parliaments blocking EU legislation; cutting red tape and free trade with North America and Asia (another one); ending unnecessary interference by the European Court of Human Rights and other European institutions; free movement for work not benefits; enlargement without vast migrations; no commitment to “Ever closer union”.
I know what you’re thinking: the European Court of Human Rights is not part of the EU.
The Prime Minister said that public disillusionment with the EU was at “an all-time high”. He added he would campaign for the UK to remain in the EU, but that if Britain left, it would be “it would be a one-way ticket, not a return”. If he hoped to satisfy the Eurosceptics in his party, their continued noise and two defections to UKIP, show he hasn’t succeeded.
The Scottish Referendum
Perhaps he and others hope that a referendum campaign would engage people in the way the Scottish referendum did. There is a difference. The Scottish referendum was preceded by at least 35 years debate in communities across the land. A constitutional convention led to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. The press was responsible and supportive. This debate included the EU. Outside Scotland there has been no debate and the press has been mostly biased against the EU.
In Scotland 85% of those eligible voted. More of us should have been eligible, but were disenfranchised by where we lived.
55.3% voted to remain in the UK. 44.7% voted “that Scotland should be an independent country”, to quote the question on the ballot paper.
I think Scotland is an independent country and always has been and has voted to remain in the voluntary political union it worked to create.
My aunt in Inverclyde – which voted No by a margin of less than 1% – says there shouldn’t have been a Union in the first place, but now that we have it, we should keep it. I doubt our ancestors in the Hebrides noticed the creation of the Union in 1707 or the Union of the Crowns 104 years earlier.
Leeds played an important part in the Union of the Crowns. The father of James VI of Scots, who became James I of England, was Lord Darnley from Temple Newsam. So the first king of Great Britain was a Scots Loiner.
People will argue whether the vow of additional devolution in the last ten days was an act of panic that saved the Union or whether it was a careful following of the pattern of the 1995 Quebec independence referendum. In my telephone canvassing, I didn’t come across any No voters whose minds were changed by the extra devolution offer, although one or two mentioned it. They all believed the Union was best for Scotland and for all the people of our Isles.
Whether it played a part or not, failure to deliver devo-max, as it is called, to the tight timetable promised will be a reason for voting Yes next time.
The all-party Smith commission began work in the week after the referendum. Its ten members include two from the SNP and two from the pro-independence Greens. On Monday of this week, the White Paper, “The parties’ published proposals on further devolution for Scotland”, Cm 8946, was presented to the Union Parliament at Westminster, which MPs debated yesterday.
There are calls for further Scottish devolution to be delayed until England’s devolution is settled, but that would betray the vow made to Scotland. 307 years after the Scots proposed it and 125 years after Mr Gladstone promised it, we may be on course for a federal United Kingdom. Wales and Northern Ireland and England, however devolved, must have the same powers as Scotland, but fulfilling the vow to Scotland must not be delayed.
An independent Scotland and the EU
It is curious that a cornerstone of the independence argument was EU membership. So important was this to the case that the Scottish First Minister and the Yes campaign would not accept that Scotland’s entry would not be automatic. As with a currency union, the First Minister insisted it would be in the rest of the UK and the EU’s interest to let Scotland in without delay. Being told Scotland would have to wait was, he said, mere bluff.
All existing 28 countries would have to vote in Scotland and any other new member. Belgium and Spain are not the only other member states facing their own secessionist movements and who said they would vote against. The First Minister’s reaction, like the Prime Minister’s, was aggressive, not persuasive to win allies.
Reasons for union
We need to remember what seemed to be often forgotten in the Scottish referendum and is mostly forgotten in discussions about the European Union.
Each Union was formed to make war unthinkable and to create and share prosperity.
The union of these isles came after centuries of warfare. The now unremarkable English-Scottish border was one of the bloodiest in Europe. The people were among the poorest in Europe, for all the airs of the monarchs and the rising merchant class.
The European Union emerged from the plethora of bodies created after the Second World War to bring together nations that had fought repeatedly over the centuries and almost continuously in the previous 100 years. During the war Churchill called for a Council of Europe and in 1946 for European unity. The Council of Europe was created by the 1949 Treaty of London and its European Court of Human Rights ten years later. They are separate from the EU.
The European Union
The forerunner of the EU was the European Coal and Steel Community established by the Treaty of Paris of 1951. It included West Germany, but the UK decided not to take part. By pooling coal and steel, it aimed to remove a root cause of war between France and Germany.
The European Atomic Energy Community – Euratom – and the European Economic Community – the Common Market – followed six years later with the Treaties of Rome.
The Treaty of Rome included the phrase “ever closer union”, though it was not new, as an aspiration because the purpose of the Treaty was to avoid war. The opposite – ever distant disunion – had led to war too often.
The Treaty of Rome also gave the right to free to movement of people, which had also been part of the European Coal and Steel Community.
UK joined at the third attempt in 1973. Between walking out of the conference that led to the Treaty of Rome and the UK’s first application in 1961 the government made thorough appraisals of Britain’s place in the world and the Empire. Commonwealth trade links, standing alone without the Empire, integration with the United States and joining Europe were considered. The immediate result was that UK brought the seven countries outside the Common Market together in the European Free Trade Area. But, within months the UK applied to join the more successful Common Market.
This was controversial then, as now. I remember TV debates and public meetings about joining the Common Market through the 1960s and up to the referendum in 1975. Parties were and are split. I went to a rally in the Royal Albert Hall in about 1968 and heard the Liberals’ Jo Grimond, Labours’ Roy Jenkins and the Conservatives’ Duncan Sandys. I could have gone to an anti- rally and heard speakers from the same parties arguing just as fiercely against joining. After the 1975 referendum, debate was replaced by angry newspapers and a carping minority of MPs.
The problem, then as now, is (to quote Crossbench Peer Professor Peter Hennessy in his book “Having it so good”) that “ ‘Europe’ for the British was not a shining collective goal in itself but a means of sustaining British power; as a concept, therefore, it was instrumental rather than inspirational”.
After the UK joined in 1973, unforeseen events substantially increased the cost of British membership and the contribution to the Common Agricultural Policy. This led to rows and in 1984 Margaret Thatcher secured the British rebate. It is not the only rebate, but it is the only one that does not have to be renegotiated every few years. It has totemic importance. Only a brave and foolhardy British politician would reduce (as Tony Blair did) or dispense with the rebate.
The Single European Act, negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1986, led to the completion of the Single Market in 1992. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty changed the name to European Union and introduced the euro. The Lisbon Treaty of 2007 consolidated previous changes and provided, for the first time, a leaving procedure. Member states, except the UK, had referenda on these treaties.
Other members of the European Free Trade Area followed the UK into the EU. The remaining members and the EU form the European Economic Area, where EU law applies, but only EU Member States have any say.
Most Member States (and the remaining members of the European Free Trade Area) are in the Schengen Area, where there are no border controls between Member States. New members are automatically part of Schengen. If Scotland had voted Yes and then joined the EU, it would have had to be part of Schengen. The UK and Ireland are not part of Schengen and retain border controls, as anyone returning from holiday knows.
EU law comes from treaties negotiated by member governments, ratified by national parliaments and the European Parliament. The ministers who negotiate these treaties are accountable to their national parliaments.
Law is made by the Council of Ministers, which means the relevant national ministers, depending on the subject, and the European Parliament from proposals made by the Commission, the EU’s civil servants. The Commission is headed by the president. Each Member State nominates a commissioner.
Laws are mostly Directives, which usually state what is to be achieved and which Member States implement by making their own laws, and Regulations which can apply without national laws, but it is usual for Member States to make their own laws. In the UK, the European Communities Act 1972 gives EU law the force of law in the UK, but the convention is always to implement EU law by passing UK laws. This has always happened, except in one case, which I think I got away with.
Ministers can delegate law making powers to the Commission (as can happen in the UK), but they have to account for what they do to national ministers sitting as the Council and to the European Parliament. 70-80% of EU laws are made jointly by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. There are still some things where the Council of Ministers acts alone.
The European Court of Justice gives rulings on questions about EU law referred from national courts, but it only answers the questions put. Beware the wrong question being asked!
The 7 areas the Conservatives want to renegotiate
I hope you’re still with me. How would all this change after the terms of the UK’s membership were renegotiated? Let’s look again at those 7 areas I mentioned earlier, with the health warning I gave earlier about how difficult it is to find anything authoritative.
First, “Powers flowing away from Brussels, not to it”. Which powers are seldom mentioned, but which way powers flow depends on how good the Prime Minister is at negotiating.
Our Prime Minister seems to go out of his way to alienate other heads of government of Member States, instead of winning them over to his point of view.
When he became Conservative Party leader, he withdrew British Conservative MEPs from the European People’s Party, the Conservative grouping in the European Parliament. This includes the party of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most powerful head of government in the EU. He set up a new grouping with various right-wing parties. Doing that, he lost an important means to network with and influence Angel Merkel and other Conservative leaders.
As Prime Minister, he walked out of talks on a new stability pact for the Eurozone crisis. He claimed he was vetoing it, but he was ignored and the deal was done without him.
After the European Parliament elections in May, he denounced the European People’s Party as the largest grouping in the European Parliament for choosing its candidate for Commission President. He seemed not to know that this was what the Lisbon Treaty required. He looked in vain for allies to stop this candidate becoming president. Yet, he would need the support of the Commission President, the European People’s Party and other heads of government in any renegotiation.
Also as part of this first item, “Cutting the cost of EU administration”. According to Eurostat, the size of the European Commission, in September 2012, was 23,803 staff. By contrast, at the same time, the size of Leeds City Council was 31,348 staff. I used to work in Whitehall on public sector efficiency and that comparison suggests lean efficiency. There are problems of corruption and accounts not being signed off, which suggest a need for more, not fewer staff.
Second, “National parliaments able to work together to block unwanted European legislation”: I have not been able to find whether the treaties prevent this happening. I doubt it. If any proposed legislation is not wanted by ministers and their parliaments they should not agree to it. Of course getting people to vote down legislation, will not be easy if the Prime Minister carries on alienating possible allies.
Third, “Businesses liberated from red tape”. Most red tape is added in Member States. Just compare the size of Directives with the volume of implementing UK Regulations. All UK governments have struggled with cutting red tape, to little effect. EU rules would exist even if the UK were outside the EU. EU rules apply to associate members. Actually, much, perhaps all, EU legislation extends rules that already existed in the UK. The Procurement Rules are an example.
Still the third item, “Benefiting from the strength of the EU’s own market – the biggest and wealthiest on the planet – to open up greater free trade with North America and Asia”. The free trade agreement with Canada – the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement was signed in Ottawa three weeks ago, on 26 September, and will come into force in 2016. As you may have seen on the news at the weekend, the free trade agreement with the United States – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – is being negotiated now. Free trade has been agreed with Korea and is being negotiated with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), India, Malaysia and Singapore. What is there to renegotiate about the UK’s membership?
Fourth, “Our police forces and justice systems able to protect British citizens, unencumbered by unnecessary interference from the European institutions, including the European Court of Human Rights”. This was dealt with by the last government securing an opt-out in the Lisbon treaty. Using this, the Home Secretary announced in July last year that the UK would opt-out of 133 law and order measures, but then opt back-in to 35, including the European Arrest Warrant, which greatly excites Eurosceptics.
The European Court of Human Rights is part of the Council of Europe, not the EU. The Council of Europe has 47 members, including all EU Member States. Although separate, membership of the Council of Europe is a condition for membership of the EU. Most European Court of Human Rights cases are against Russia. Withdrawal would align the UK with the abusers of human rights. How would that serve our national interests?
Fifth, “Free movement to take up work, not a freedom to move just for more generous benefits”; or, as London Mayor Boris Johnson said at the weekend, echoing other Eurosceptic Conservatives and UKIP, we need to reclaim our borders. It always seems to come down to immigration. In July the Prime Minister announced the latest curbs on immigrants claiming benefits. What additional powers would he get by renegotiation? In fact, according to the FullFacts website, the Department of Work and Pensions doesn’t collect information on non-UK nationals claiming benefit, except when they apply for a National Insurance number.
Sixth, “Support for the continued enlargement of the EU to new members, but with new mechanisms in place to prevent vast migrations across the continent”. This is a matter for future enlargement negotiations, not a matter for renegotiating the UK’s membership, but the UK’s negotiating position has been recklessly weakened.
Seventh, “End our commitment to an ‘ever closer union,’ as enshrined in the Treaty, to which every EU country has to sign up. It may appeal to some countries. But it is not right for Britain, and we must ensure we are no longer subject to it”. Would ever distant disunion be right for Britain?
What will happen?
So, to conclude, what will happen?
We, British people are principled, pragmatic and all of us immigrant. We see through politicians’ devices but understand what is going on and go along with trends and schemes only so far as we want to. We respect honesty. But, for a long while people have distrusted authority whether it is in Westminster, Edinburgh or Brussels. Most people are not taken in by anti-establishment rhetoric, any more than they are by authority.
So my forecast is this. The Conservatives will probably win the general election with a small overall majority. The Prime Minister will, despite himself, successfully conduct negotiations, because the German Chancellor and the Commission President he tried to stop have said they will work with him to meet the UK’s concerns. He will then hold the referendum and campaign for a vote to stay in the EU. There will be no Scottish effect and the turnout will be lower than in 1975, but there will again be a two to one majority in favour of staying in the EU.
It will not settle the matter.
The Liberal Democrats will do better in the general election and retain most of their MPs. They will be revitalised by the referendum campaign.
UKIP will gain a handful of seats, enough to aggravate the divisions in the Conservative Party.
Splits will occur and UKIP will grow and, as with Reform and the Conservatives in Canada, there will first be an alliance and a merger to form a new anti-immigration party, Eurosceptic, but less bothered about Europe than before.
Pro-EU, liberal Conservatives, like the Peelites in the 1850s, will split away.
While the Prime Minister is dealing with all this and a struggling economy, albeit one boosted by the Yes vote, he will have less and less time for devolution, the English question and federalism. Pressure will grow for a fresh vote in Scotland. In Wales, a constitutional convention will announce a referendum on secession. Northern Ireland will look to itself. The United Kingdom will start to break-up.
The royal family’s purchase of a holiday home in Canada will go unnoticed.
Of course it turned out differently after Alan Johnson became leader of the Labour Party and won the 2015 general election.
© Ian MacFadyen 2014