Stephen McCarthy writes: There can be no other state-like structure in the world that quite compares with the European Union, a complex of institutions in which power is well and truly dispersed. How would it be possible to shift its direction in any serious way? It is clear that it could not be done quickly, at least not if a major change was contemplated. A longish programme of significant speeches would have to be made by a prime minister, or a series of prime ministers from different countries, pointing out the desirable new direction and giving flesh to it. Other power brokers within the structure would then be drawn into the debate. Each country would start taking a look at the emerging proposals and thinking about what they might mean for them, all of this leading in time to a broad consensus for change. Then the negotiations could begin.
Is any of this happening now? No. But David Cameron is insisting that in a period of little over twenty months he can fundamentally change the EU.
There are so many difficulties with this it’s hard to know where to begin. No grand plan exists. If it did we would be discussing it already. Cameron’s proposal to hold a referendum on the EU had more to do with fending off UKIP than anything else. With that behind him there is nothing left. The debate in Britain seems to be driven by the Mail and the Telegraph’s foreigner-bashing stances. The issues spoken of as part of a reform package are either trivial or invitations to retaliation. (Denial of benefits to other EU nationals would rebound very heavily on the Tories when other countries responded by implementing the same policy as regards British expats.) It is hard to think of any reform of substance that would not impact on competition policy. Any change in competition rules will have a direct impact on the UK’s competitors in Europe. Their governments will be very reluctant to change unless there are compensations.
It is safe to assume then that Cameron is going to come back from the negotiations with a long list of trivial changes. Changes of a mid-level of impact, like a change in benefit rules, will emphasise the semi-detached nature of the UK’s membership, making it exceptional, or more exceptional, to the EU norm.
The British complaint over “welfare tourism” is somewhat ironic given that the EU’s enlargement policy was a direct result of British Tory policy. Britain, in a bid to slow down concentration in the union, proposed, and won, agreement for the policy of enlargement, chiefly by igniting an EU debate about the plight of those central and eastern European countries left hanging after the fall of the Soviets. Britain won the argument and shifted the EU’s direction in a substantial way. As a result we now have an EU from the Blaskets to Białystok ‑ and internal migration.
Cameron, and probably most of the Tories, will attempt to sell the outcome of any negotiations as a game changer. Most but not all. It is doubtful that he will carry The Sun, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph with him. It will be a tough sell. Already he has had warning shots across his bows and has been forced to withdraw from the position of expecting full Cabinet loyalty on the outcome of negotiations to expecting loyalty only up to the negotiations.
The Tory majority in the Commons is twelve. If Cameron loses six MPs he loses his majority. No doubt some Labour Party members will also join the Leave the EU crusade. There will be a substantial campaign, whose outcome is difficult to predict. It could go either way. In any case the Tories are going to be left bloodied and wounded. Europe has always had the capacity to tear the party apart. And all this is before we look at the effect of Scotland voting differently from England. Which is highly likely.
In Scotland the Labour Party had asked Jim Murphy, their Scottish leader who lost ninety-eight per cent of their Westminster representation, to propose strategic changes to lead them to recovery. His report came out this week. He wouldn’t have been my first choice. Nothing of any importance emerged. One member one vote. Rejection of the proposal to separate from the English party. Move the Scottish Party HQ from Glasgow to Edinburgh, and so on. There is to be a leadership contest. For a while it looked like we might just have a coronation of Kezia Dugdale, Murphy’s deputy. Ken Macintosh is the other candidate and there were attempts by the party’s leadership to keep his name off the ballot paper. In the previous election for Scottish leader, held under old electoral college rule, involving the membership, the unions and the elected representatives, Ken Macintosh won the membership ballot. This election will be membership only. It is against this background that attempts to coerce support away from Macintosh’s nomination should be seen.
Why is any of this important? Only in attempting to judge how well Labour will do in next year’s Holyrood elections. The electoral system in Scotland involves a mixture of constituency MPs (seventy-five per cent) and list MPs (twenty-five per cent). Current estimates are that Labour will lose all its constituency MPs. The real battle going on inside the party therefore is the battle to secure names high up the party list. While that distracts the top people nobody is doing any real thinking about the party’s future.
We are therefore going to be heading into an EU referendum with Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP in an even stronger position in Scotland than they are now. Could the Tories drag Scotland from the EU against its wishes? Could they resist another independence referendum? Could they win such a referendum? In answering those questions, we might paraphrase Margaret Thatcher: No, No and No.