The EU Referendum

Part I – How We Got To Where We Are

 

When writing this blog I promised that I would steer clear of politics, but it’s difficult to divorce the politics from the other issues completely as the former are often used by both sides of the debate to reinforce their positions.  Moreover, the reason we are having a referendum at all is rooted in politics far more than in objective reasoning, so let’s start there and trace the developments

 

There has been a groundswell gathering momentum for the last 10 years over the UK’s relationship with the EU, which came to some sort of pinnacle around the time of the last election in 2015.  During the 5 years prior to that – remember this was a time of coalition government between the Conservatives who are pretty much split over the issue, and the Liberal Democrats who are totally in favour of the UK remaining in the EU, and a time when the UK Independence Party (the clue is in the title….) was gaining a lot of electoral ground.  Essentially a threat to the Conservatives, UKIP was one of the biggest obstacles to the Conservatives gaining an overall majority at the 2015 election.  Partly to neutralise this threat, the Conservatives began talking about offering the country a referendum on the issue.  David Cameron set out his position in a speech delivered at Bloomberg’s headquarters in London on the 23rd January 2013.  This became known as the “Bloomberg speech” and it set out the reforms to the EU which the Prime Minister wished to achieve.  His position was quite clear – that after negotiating “fundamental reform” of the European Union, he would offer the public the opportunity to vote on the new relationship in an in/out referendum.  It’s worth noting the words “fundamental reform” as we’ll return to these on several occasions during this discussion.

 

The full text can be found using the link below and it’s worth reading as it draws on historical ties to create quite an emotive backdrop.  It was a powerful speech challenging most of the current structures and direction of the EU – and it set the scene for the negotiations to follow.  We will later compare what was achieved in those negotiations to what was said in the speech.  I therefore make no apology for quoting extensively from the speech.

 

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/eu-speech-at-bloomberg

 

After talking about the historical basis of the EU, the Prime Minister turned to the current position with the words “…European Union and how it must change…”  He recognised that then was perhaps not the best time to be introducing fundamental reforms but felt that the crises then on-going would force the EU to reform itself, thus alleviating pressure on Britain to do so.   He said “why raise fundamental questions about the future of Europe when Europe is already in the midst of a deep crisis?” – quite a powerful formula of words to use about the club of which you are a member.

 

He identified 3 major challenges confronting the EU, which formed the basis of the changes he wanted to see.  These were, and I quote:

  • First, the problems in the Eurozone are driving fundamental change in Europe.
  • Second, there is a crisis of European competitiveness, as other nations across the world soar ahead.
  • Third, there is a gap between the EU and its citizens which has grown dramatically in recent years, and which represents a lack of democratic accountability and consent.

 

“The biggest danger to the European Union”, he said “comes not from those who advocate change, but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy”.  Again, it is interesting to note how far any changes have actually been made in the intervening 3 years.

 

Repeating the phrase “we need fundamental, far-reaching change” he went on to enunciate 5 principles on which a new model EU would be based.  Again these are direct quotes, and you might like to note the somewhat undiplomatic language.  Remember this is a club of which he is a member, and of which he wishes to remain a member:

 

  • First: competitiveness – we urgently need to address the sclerotic, ineffective decision making that is holding us back. That means creating a leaner, less bureaucratic Union.
  • Second: flexibility. We need a structure that can accommodate the diversity of its members, and to challenge the concept of “ever closer union”.
  • Third: power must flow back to Member States.
  • Fourth: democratic accountability. We need to have a bigger and more significant role for national parliaments.
  • Fifth: fairness. Whatever new arrangements are enacted for the Eurozone, they must work fairly for those inside it and out.

 

It was a powerful and emotive speech, using phrases such as “heretical”, “challenging”, “sclerotic”, “holding us back” etc…and essentially distanced himself from the rest of the EU.

 

The speech concluded with no less vigour:  “The European Union that emerges from the Eurozone crisis is going to be a very different body. It will be transformed perhaps beyond recognition by the measures needed to save the Eurozone.”

 

Again, you can be the judge of what changes have actually be made within the EU, whether it is indeed “very different” or “transformed……beyond recognition”

 

Finally he wanted the various changes embodied in Treaty change to “entrench the diverse, competitive, democratically accountable Europe that we seek”.

 

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Conservative party manifesto March 2015
All the above happened in 2013 – two years later we were approaching an election in the UK, and manifestos were being prepared to tell the public what each party proposed to do if it were to govern with an overall majority.  Whether or not you read manifestos, and whether or not you think they are worth the paper they are written on, it is usually worth testing what was said against what has been achieved.  So let’s turn to the manifesto which can be found below:

 

https://www.conservatives.com/manifesto

 

Page 72 talks about the EU and is entitled “Real change in our relationship with the European Union”.  Note there’s a subtle shift already – no longer is the main thrust that the EU itself must change, but rather that “our relationship” must change, although to be fair it did use similar language to the Bloomberg speech later on.

Confirming that the referendum would be held by the end of 2017 it promised to:

 

  • “reform the workings of the EU, which is too big, too bossy and too bureaucratic”
  • “reclaim power from Brussels” as well as insisting that:
  • ”the EU needs to change”

 

The manifesto also introduced two concepts missing from Bloomberg, but which would have popular appeal to many voters.  The first was that the EU was “…too undemocratic” and the second was “large scale immigration”.  Remember the period – early 2015 when the first pictures of massed immigration into Europe were projected onto our TV screens.

 

We know that the Conservatives won an overall majority in May 2015, and duly set about ensuring that the referendum took place.  Mr Cameron made a further speech on 10th November 2015 (link below) setting out the then current position, building on the Bloomberg speech, and laying the formal foundations for the negotiations which would presage the vote.

 

https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prime-ministers-speech-on-europe

 

He recognised that the challenges facing the European Union had not diminished since the Bloomberg speech, but had grown.  By now, of course, not only had Greece just been rescued from the brink of bankruptcy – but with a financial noose around its neck which will last at least 50 years (and most admit will never be repaid) – but the migration crisis had been ongoing throughout the whole of the summer, with the EU standing by impotently but still talking of needing to “do something”.  France had endured the Charlie Hebdo shootings which killed 12 people earlier that year – little could Mr Cameron know that a mere 5 days after his speech more than ten times that number would be gunned down in the same city in the Stade de France attacks.

 

He repeated “The European Union needs to change”, used the phrase “fundamental change” and re-stated the 3 challenges facing the EU – let me just remind you of these:

  • the Eurozone
  • lack of competitiveness
  • lack of democratic accountability

All of these were, he said, still valid.  Indeed they were “…as critical now as they were when I first set them out “ – clearly the EU hadn’t changed in the ways that Mr. Cameron expected in 2013 but he added another, guess what….?  Yes, of course:

  • the migration crisis

 

And it’s worth reading – not for what it says (as it is largely a repetition of the earlier speech) but for its tone.  My interpretation is that the Bloomberg speech was a fiery, impassioned and determined set of statements, designed to spur not the British people, but the institutions of the EU into making the sort of “fundamental changes” which would easily secure the “In” result at the referendum.  This one seems to me to be delivered in a tone of bored, almost subservient, resignation, in the full knowledge that nothing has changed and nothing will change.  Many of the phrases are statements of hope such as “..this should be perfectly possible” and “there is no reason why….” rather than the bold positives of three years earlier.  The language distinctions would be a perfect treasure trove for a specialist – I am no specialist but there’s a big difference between the earlier “will” and the later “would” which is often used.

 

Cutting to the chase, the four objectives set out as goals for the negotiations were:

 

  • “protect the single market for Britain and others outside the Eurozone.” This is much watered down from the earlier statements which sought to expand and build upon the single market.  This phraseology again seems defensive and negative.
  • “write competitiveness into the DNA of the whole European Union.” – laudable but practically meaningless formula of words.
  • “exempt Britain from an ‘ever closer union’”. Quite how this would be achieved as a member of the club if others want to go down a different path is not explained.  Interestingly Mr Cameron sneaked in a further objective as an adjunct to this one “to bolster national parliaments.”  Mr Cameron clearly recognises that many people would say “but these are only words” for he qualifies the statements by adding “…not through warm words but through legally binding and irreversible changes.”
  • “tackle abuses of the right to free movement, and enable us to control migration from the European Union, in line with our manifesto.”

 

From the legal point of view the introduction of the words in this speech “…a basis that is legally-binding and irreversible, and where necessary has force in the Treaties” should cause us to examine reality against rhetoric and see what legal protections have been included, as well as the determination of all parties to enforce them.  Interestingly, discussions in the broadcast media between the various parties following this speech, including those who would be negotiating on behalf of the EU, disagreed quite dramatically on this point.  Whilst Mr. Cameron insisted that all the negotiation points were legally binding, the EU Commission stated that they would need to be put to the European Parliament which could overturn or modify them at a later stage.  This prompted some commentators to raise the point “why not wait till the European Parliament has passed judgement and then have a referendum…?” which has never (in my opinion) been satisfactorily answered, and is something we’ll return to for the next blog.

 

 

The negotiation – what was asked for, what was achieved.

I should imagine that asking the average person in the UK (or indeed the rest of the EU) what it is we are voting on would elicit the answer “in or out of the EU” – but we should remember that this was not the original intention.  It’s worth reminding ourselves that the Prime Minister told us that after achieving agreement on “…a fundamentally reformed European Union…” we would then be asked to vote either “out” or “in, but with reforms as negotiated”.  Otherwise, why go through the rigmarole of attempting to negotiate anything?

 

The final negotiations have not been anywhere near as clear or concise as the original speech setting them out, but as far as we can gather, the four things below are what has been asked for and achieved, and presumably what everyone should be aware of if we are taking part in a vote.  It’s quite interesting to note that we never hear of the negotiations any more, or what changes have been achieved within the “reformed EU” to enable us to make up our minds.

 

I will leave you to consider whether or not the four objectives have been realised through the negotiations – or indeed how closely they match what was expected from the earlier strong speeches.  The words in italics below are the actual words which we should be aware of, and which form the basis of the “new relationship” with the EU.  I have put in my comment, not from the “political” point of view of a Euro-sceptic or Euro-enthusiast, but purely comparing them to what was originally sought, and what they actually mean:

 

Protecting the single market for those outside the Eurozone:

Mr. Cameron wanted to make sure that countries outside the Eurozone were not materially disadvantaged, and to protect the City of London – the world’s largest financial trading centre.  The agreement states “Measures, the purpose of which is to further deepen the economic and monetary union, will be voluntary for member states whose currency is not the euro.  Mutual respect between member states participating or not in the operation of the euro area will be ensured…….the single rulebook is to be applied by all credit institutions and other financial institutions in order to ensure the level-playing field within the internal market.”

 

RWC Comment – some protections have certainly been built in by using the word “voluntary”, but the inclusion of the words “to ensure the level playing field within the internal market” was inserted at France’s insistence to ensure that the City of London was not able to exclude itself from financial regulation imposed by the rest of Europe.  If, for example, Brussels decided to impose a tax on financial transactions, then the “level playing field” clause means we would have to impose such a tax as well.

 

Writing competitiveness into the DNA of the whole European Union

The agreement says the EU “must increase efforts towards enhancing competitiveness, along the lines set out in the Declaration of the European Council on competitiveness. To this end the relevant EU institutions and the member states will make all efforts to strengthen the internal market”

RWC Comment – this doesn’t sound to me very much like “fundamental reform”.  The EU has become less competitive with other areas in the world – China, Asia, America, South America – and it sounds like they are paying lip service to a different approach to competitiveness.  If the EU has achieved so little in the last 50 years I can’t see that this formula of words “must increase efforts” and “make all efforts” is going to spur them on to reduce regulation and improve labour market reforms.  It reminds me of a serial criminal who says “this time I really will obey the law”

 

Exempting Britain from an ‘ever closer union’

The agreement says “It is recognised that the United Kingdom, in the light of the specific situation it has under the Treaties, is not committed to further political integration into the European Union. The substance of this will be incorporated into the Treaties at the time of their next revision in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Treaties and the respective constitutional requirements of the Member States, so as to make it clear that the references to ever closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.”

RWC Comment – a real win, at least in terms of the words used.  When the treaties get revised, sometime in the next 15 years or so, they will state that ever closer union does not apply to the UK.  My question is – what does this mean in practice?  The EU’s stated aim is “ever closer union”, so how can one member not go along with the fundamental principle on which the club is constituted?  It is also interesting to note the words “and the respective constitutional requirements of the Member States”.  Note the plural.  This would strongly indicate that it is the other members who will decide whether or not to re-open the treaties, and whether or not to grant the UK it’s opt-out on ever closer union.  This brings us back to the question posed earlier – how legally binding is any of this?

 

Tackling abuses of the right to free movement, and enabling us to control migration

The agreement says “The Council would authorise that Member State to limit the access of newly arriving EU workers to non-contributory in-work benefits for a total period of up to four years from the commencement of employment. The limitation should be graduated, from an initial complete exclusion but gradually increasing access to such benefits to take account of the growing connection of the worker with the labour market of the host Member State. The authorisation would have a limited duration and apply to EU workers newly arriving during a period of 7 years.”

RWC Comments – whatever reference there is to “benefits” will have almost zero effect on immigration.  European Union citizens don’t come to this country for benefits, they come to work – and contribute significantly to our economy.  Every EU citizen has the right of free movement to any country within the EU, and any limitations on benefits would only act as a disincentive, not a “control”.  Several commentators have suggested that the lift in the minimum wage would cancel out any such disincentive in any case.  The UK is not part of Schengen (see earlier blog article) so does not have to accept any of the illegal immigrants currently entering, but as soon as they become EU citizens there is no control.  So whatever your views on immigration may be , there is absolutely no “control” built in to this part of the agreement.

If we vote “remain”, is the agreement legally binding?

 

Interesting question – and as we saw, a lot of disagreement, but we’ll consider that in part II in a little while.

 

Robert Curtis April 2016.  robert.curtis@staffs.ac.uk