May 25, 2010
In this exclusive article, Sir Stephen Wall, formerly the United Kingdom Permanent Representative to the European Union, explains why the new coalition government in the UK faces a changing relationship with the EU.
A few days after the British General Election, I saw a UK Press review which was full of downbeat comments from pro-European British MEPs about the implications of coalition government for British EU policy. I guess for some, maintaining the undiluted integrity of the struggle is more important than getting a result. A nurseable grievance about the awfulness of the EU policies of successive British governments may be more of a comfort blanket than coming to terms with a new political dynamic that busts the stereotype.
Some things do not change. The rhetoric of British politics on Europe varies but the substance of British policy has been pretty constant since we joined in 1973. Britain was always more ill at ease than her partners with the idea of independent European institutions; with laws made in Brussels (albeit with the wholehearted participation of British Ministers and MEPs) that could not then be altered by Parliament in London; with the vague but disturbing concept of a federal Europe which smacked of the kind of continental encroachment our island nation had successfully resisted for hundreds of years.
The result of our national psychology, and our perception of our own interests, has been to make us awkward partners when it comes to institutional change. Whereas most of our partners saw the Treaty of Rome as the start of a process of dynamic political and economic evolution, for Britain it represented the culmination of years of difficult negotiation. The Treaty of Rome was the deal we had eventually signed up to and we wanted it to stay substantially unchanged. That too was the deal the British people eventually put their name to in a referendum in 1975 and significant changes threatened to undermine our fragile national consensus.
So, successive British governments, whether Conservative or Labour, did not relish any changes to the basic Treaties and were obliged by British public, press and parliamentary opinion to extract a price for any changes they reluctantly conceded: usually in the form of opt-outs, as in the case of the Single Currency or of cooperation in the fight against international crime and terrorism.
It looked as if an incoming Conservative government would take matters a good deal further by seeking to repatriate some policies exercised at European level, by passing a Sovereignty law to assert the primacy of the British Parliament in ways that could have put us into conflict with our EU legal obligations and by putting the brakes on cooperation against crime.
In the coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats only diluted versions of those ideas remain. What do stay are, firstly a commitment that there will be preparation for, let alone entry into, the single currency in the lifetime of the coalition and, secondly, an undertaking to pass a Bill requiring a referendum on any further transfers of sovereignty to the EU, along with an undertaking that no such transfer will be contemplated in this Parliament i.e. for the next five years.
The undertaking on the euro is a milder version of the Conservatives’ previous policy of ruling out euro membership for ever. But, in political terms, ‘forever’ only means the lifetime of a Parliament anyway, so this is no real concession by the Conservatives though it is a bit of a concession by Nick Clegg. Does it matter? I think not. As things look today, the chances of a British government wanting to recommend euro membership to the British people in the next five years look about as likely as the 2012 Olympics coming within budget. But if there was a crisis of such proportions that the eurozone looked to be the only safe port in a mega storm then public opinion itself might shift and the government’s policy would shift with it.
The commitment to a referendum on further shifts in sovereignty has more significant implications. It will be much harder for a future British government to agree to changes in the Treaties, knowing that it has to get them past the British people, where no government has an inbuilt majority, rather than through Parliament where governments do usually have such majorities. That alone may deter our partners from suggesting future Treaty changes since they all require unanimous consent of the member states. But, insofar as Britain has never felt able to hold up others indefinitely, we may find ourselves under pressure to seek more opt-outs from new Treaty provisions in order to allow others to go ahead. Nothing new there. But, the promise of a referendum means that British governments will not be free to have, as we do now, both an opt-out from, and a right to opt in to, future policies involving Treaty change because the existence of such an opt-in would itself require the consent of the British people through a referendum.
It is of course also possible that the British promise of referendums may make it harder for some of our partners not to follow suit. It was, after all, Tony Blair’s concession of a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty that made it politically impossible in France for President Chirac not to do the same.
So, at one level this change must give pro-Europeans some cause for concern. On the other hand, we have had far more changes to the EU Treaties over the last thirty years than can be justified by their real-world results and referendums is one price we are paying for loss of public confidence in EU policies and policymakers. And that is not a uniquely British phenomenon.
Despite the pitfalls, already, the new British coalition government looks very different from a Conservative-only government. The mould of British politics has been radically reshaped. Coalition politics will require compromise within government. We may lose some of the ‘yah-boo’ aspects of Westminster politics and with it, our zero sum game approach to EU negotiations in which everything is cast as either win or lose. In other words, coalition will force compromise and compromise is the stuff of which European agreements are made.
Blogactiv interviewed Sir Stephen in Brussels in April. Click here to watch the interview with Sir Stephen Wall.Blogactiv Team