When the Prime Minister set out plans for a thorough-going audit of Britain’s relationship with Europe, the aim was to establish a basis from which to repatriate powers back to Westminster.
Instead, the first batch of results suggests the so-called “balance of competences” to be about right – which is good news for Britain but rather less so for David Cameron.
The Prime Minister has long been in a bind over Europe. Unlike the “swivel-eyed” backbenchers who want out at any price, his approach is more measured. There is much scope for improvement, he thinks; but, reforms accomplished, we are better off in. Faced with squalls of rebellion from Eurosceptic MPs spooked by Ukip, Mr Cameron tried to square the circle by promising not only to renegotiate our place in the EU but to hold an in/out referendum on the results of his handiwork.
To help things along, he ordered a vast stocktake (to run to 32 studies, in four tranches) to identify where Britain is most egregiously under Brussels’ heel. Except that the first six reports – looking at the single market, tax, foreign policy, healthcare, food safety and aid – failed to deliver. There are questions about some specific regulations. The Working Time Directive, for example, causes problems for junior doctors. And while most tax rules are set nationally, an EU-wide levy on financial transactions will hit the City hard. But these are mere quibbles; the broad picture is of a system in which Britain’s profits exceed its losses.
Although almost all foreign policy is decided in Westminster, we gain much from Brussels’ extra heft in trade talks. Similarly, while the single market comes with extra rules – sceptics’ loathed “red tape” – the boost to British business, both in Europe and globally, is of far greater consequence. Even the NHS gains more from foreign medics than it loses to health tourism.
No wonder Mr Cameron delayed publication until his MPs had safely left Westminster for the summer; and no wonder he refused the high-profile launch favoured by the Liberal Democrats. Still, Eurosceptics were quick to cry foul. Never mind the 500 submissions from which officials drew their conclusions; they are still a “Whitehall whitewash” from a pro-Europe “bureaucratic elite”. The star turn at the circus was, of course, Ukip’s Nigel Farage, who dismissed the whole business as “a futile and cynical PR exercise” proving the Prime Minister’s duplicity.
In fact, the reverse is true. At the outset, the notion of a review did, indeed, appear to be a propaganda stunt – one designed to cloak the Prime Minister’s pre-conceived agenda. It did not help that, of our 27 EU counterparts, only Italy and Bulgaria responded to requests for evidence – a comment not only on the distractions of the euro crisis but also on the conclusions drawn in European capitals from Mr Cameron’s altogether gauche diplomacy.
Now, however, any notion of a stitch-up must surely be abandoned. After all, no one is more incommoded by this week’s conclusions than Mr Cameron himself. Even his more moderate assertions about the need to re-set Britain’s relationship with Brussels have been cut off at the roots, and his attempts to tread the line between the country’s best interests and his party’s neuroses are now trickier than ever.
All of which only increases the value of the three further batches of competence reports due by 2014. This week’s fulminations about a Europhile plot only confirm – yet again – the extent to which the EU debate is one of politics and politics alone. What are needed, more than anything else, are some hard facts – whether or not Mr Farage et al want to hear them.