Some of the Eurosceptic community, to say nothing of the Guardian and the BBC, are getting terribly excited about an e-mail sent by John Redwood, claiming that it suggests the Tories will unilaterally withdraw Britain from its European Union agreements such as fisheries and agriculture, if it is unable to negotiate an agreed exit with its EU partners.
Writes the Guardian: "The shadow cabinet member for deregulation said this in an email to members of Ukip; on the surface it suggests he is willing to see a Tory government tear up its EU treaty obligations".
Redwood actually confined his comments to fishing, writing: "We will expect to win them [the powers] back by renegotiation. But if they refuse, we will amend the 1972 European Communities Act to take them back unilaterally. Easy isn't it?"
This is actually no more or less that Michael Howard stated on 10 June in a letter to the then shadow secretary of state for agriculture and fisheries, but many Labourites and commentators have taken it to be something new.
For instance, Alan Milburn, Labour's election coordinator, said the email was a further sign of how far Michael Howard was taking his party to the right and Denis MacShane, the Europe minister, claimed that the e-mail represented "a fundamental crossing of the line that separates legitimate criticism of EU policies to the unilateral policy of being willing to breach the EU treaties and quit the EU."
Sir Stephen Wall, a former British ambassador to the EU, also challenged Mr Redwood's approach, saying "civil servants are under obligation not to carry out any act that would be illegal. "
"And we could find ourselves before the European court facing very swingeing fines", he says. "I think it would be the first time that a British government had effectively torn up a treaty - that's normally something which dictatorships do, not normally something which democracies do."
In an attempt to clarify the scenario postulated by Wall, Jon Humphrys today interviewed Graham Brady MP, Conservative shadow minister for foreign affairs, on the Today programme, together with MacShane. The transcript is posted below, and I leave it to our readers to decide whether Brady succeeded.
John Humphrys: One of the big promises made by the Conservatives is that if they form the next government, they will pull out of the European Union fisheries treaty. Most people agree that the treaty has been bad for this country and our fishing fleet. But pulling out of it – that’s another thing. Could we do so without having ultimately… (break in recording)
Graham Brady: (recording resumes) …we believe very strongly that we can do it through renegotiation. The fisheries policy hasn’t just been bad for Britain; it’s been bad for fish stocks and it’s been bad for a number of other member states as well. And we believe we can achieve it through renegotiation but if necessary, and this is a crucial difference between the next Conservative government and the present Labour government, if necessary we will stand up for Britain’s interests; we will resort to domestic legislation and we will do it by that means if we have to.
JH: The effect of that could be that we leave the European Union
GB: We that’s not true and I think that er…
JH: Why not? If we unilaterally break a treaty, however we do it, you can… er use the language of politics – we will er… introduce new legislation, but what we would be doing would unilaterally, we’d be unilaterally leaving a treaty, abrogating a treaty to which we had signed up - and that would be tantamount to…
GB: (illegible) …a few years ago over the ban on British beef and that didn’t mean that France was going to leave the European Union.
JH: It wasn’t a treaty obligation!
GB: Well, they were clearly in breach of their treaty obligations
JH: Ah, but there’s all the difference isn’t there between saying that we will no longer have anything to do with this treaty, we will in effect leave this treaty, we will break it…
GB: We’re saying that we’d amend the treaty… and I think we..
JH: Well, what if they won’t let us amend it?
GB: Well, they will. And interestingly, if you look at some of the comments quoted yesterday in The Times, Monsieur Bayrou, the leaders of the UDF, a very pro-European centrist party in France, who was quoted as saying the EU cannot survive without Britain, which is much admired everywhere. We must find a way of keeping Britain inside and not resort to other ways forward. What we underestimate, what particularly this government underestimates, is how significant Britain is to the EU, how much they need to have us in the EU, and that’s why they constantly fail to negotiate as hard for Britain as they can, constantly fail to get as good a deal as they should, and that’s why we believe we could do so much better.
JH: All right. But ultimately, ultimately, if it comes to it, and it could – you acknowledge that it could; you think it’s unlikely but you acknowledge that it could – if it comes to it and the other countries, or some other countries say look, Britain simply cannot do this, we will not have it. Then what do you say? Do you say, OK, we’ll leave?
GB: No. I think what you have to realise that this will be in the context of a large
renegotiation of all of the treaties in any case…
JH: But you’re still not answering the question though, are you?
GB: Well… the question will be a very different question. Er.. the situation following, I hope, a Conservative victory in the next general election; following a "no" vote by at least this country and hopefully a number of other countries on the constitution will be a renegotiation of all the treaties in any case.
JH: I know, but if the negotiations don’t go the way you want them to, and you are faced finally with this critical decision – they won’t let us amend the treaty in the way we want to - would you in the final analysis say all right then, we’ll leave the club?
GB: No, we wouldn’t. Michael Howard has been very clear. We don’t intend to leave the EU. We don’t think it is necessary; we don’t think it’s appropriate or in Britain’s interests. What we do believe is that we can get a much better deal.
GB: We can only get that better deal if we’re prepared to be firm, if we’re prepared to be very clear; if we’re prepared to fight our corner in the way that this government simply does not.
JH: Ah, but you’ve given away your final card, haven’t you. You know. You’ve actually said that we’ll make a big fuss, but in the end, its not…
GB: Not at all.
JH: That’s what you’ve just said..
GB: That’s the crucial distinction, that’s the crucial distinction . We said we’d use domestic legislation on this particular aspect, the Common Fisheries Policy. I think that is an indication to our colleagues in Europe how serious we are, and that we intend to succeed in renegotiation, and ultimately we will.
JH: All right let’s put that then to Denis MacShane. If they fail in the kind of renegotiation they want, could they use domestic legislation to get what they want, and if they can, why doesn’t the present government, your government do the same?
Denis MacShane: For the very same reason that John Redwood and Michael Howard didn’t do so when they were in Conservative governments; they didn’t renegotiate those policies when they were in power. Yes, I’m critical of them. But I can give you examples of other European countries who don’t like, for example, the challenge and the competition of Easyjet and Ryanair to their domestic airlines but, if they unilaterally pass legislation to stop that kind of common, single market policy then they’re without the treaty. And, I’m afraid this is music to the ears of UKIP and Paul Sykes – it’s fascinating that you’ve got this e-mail for John Redwood; I see he’s now doing an Oliver Letwin and disappearing – but Michael Howard at the party conference for the Conservatives also talked about pulling out of the social policy that gives every British citizen 28 days paid holiday a year. If you do that, you’re in breach of a treaty. John. You can’t be in the European Union, which is a treaty-based organisation and say, to quote John Redwood, we will unilaterally repudiate part of that treaty and stay in the treaty organisation.
JH: So what you’re saying, what the government is saying is there are things we profoundly do not like – for instance we don’t like the Common Agricultural Policy; we all know that, no government has for many, many years now – we don’t like in this particular case the fisheries policy. However, we value our membership of the European Union so much that, even though we don’t like it and it clearly harms Britain’s interests, we will not make a fuss about it.
DM: We make, if by fuss, you mean negotiate and play very hard ball, we are tough on that.
JH: It hasn’t worked, though, has it?
DM: No – just give me one second – we managed for example to reduce the level of the Common Agricultural Policy spending from about 70 percent of the EU budget under the Tories to getting down to close to 40 percent - not enough, I accept that. We’ve got a lot of like-minded partners but if we say to them, to quote John Redwood, we will unilaterally breach a treaty, then of course we loose all leverage and all partners in Europe. And it’s part of this problem of isolating us from Europe, because the Conservatives now are the most extreme right-wing party of any mainstream parties in Europe…
JH: All right, let’s put party politics aside for a second…
DM: OK, fine, fine
JH: …because what does puzzle people, and we had it earlier this week on this programme, what does puzzle people is what we can and cannot do within the European Union. I mean, here we have Mr Brady saying, quite clearly, look, we’ll try to renegotiate and if that fails we’ll pass domestic legislation and that’ll make it all right.. Are you saying that that simply cannot be done without ultimately having to leave the European Union.
DM: No member of the European Union can pass domestic unilateral legislation which repudiates part of a solemn treaty obligation without being in breach of the treaty…
JH: And the effect of being in breach of a European Union treaty would be…
DM: …is either you have massive fines, or you quit.
JH: Right. So there we are. That’s clear enough Mr Brady. Either we have massive fines or we have to leave the Union.
FH: Hello Mr Brady.
GB: …it’s a very different kind of European Union.
JH: Sorry, we missed the first part of what you said there.
GB: Well, the third option that Denis MacShane refused to give is that you renegotiate, and….
JH: We’re assuming that that’s failed… we’ve moved on from that…
GB: We’re not prepared to assume we’ve failed.
JH: Yes you are prepared to assume it… (interruption) No, no, sorry, with respect, you are prepared to assume it because you’ve already given me the fallback position, which would be domestic legislation.
GB: No, no, the fallback position of using domestic legislation would be as a part of our strategy of renegotiation. It is because we are determined to succeed in our renegotiation, er, that we’ve been very clear, that if necessary on that particular point we would use domestic legislation…
JH:…in which case you would be in violation…
GB: …that would be part of our negotiations.
JH: In which case, if you did that, if you used domestic legislation, you would be in violation of the treaty.
GB: Yes, and we would then use that as part of our renegotiation.
JH: I’m sorry, you’ve lost me here. Sorry, this is terribly important – you’ve lost me here. That cannot be a part of your renegotiation because you have already, by going down the domestic legislation route, you have already abandoned the renegotiation.
GB: We have no intention of abandoning renegotiation. We intend to succeed in that
JH: But you’ve already accepted that the nuclear option is there…
GB: (unintelligible) …go on for a long period of time. We’re looking here, probably, a very protracted, probably, period, which we hope and intend is going to lead to a very different shape of European Union which will be far more flexible…
JH: All right.
GB: …which will have a number of different relationships, which won’t lead to the kind of constant integration, giving up more and more powers that Denis MacShane is prepared to accept. We won’t accept that and now we’ve a number of new members who don’t accept that either.
JH: Denis MacShane. A final thought to you. Isn’t that the case that we’ve too acquiescent and we are now maybe a bit out of step with the way Europe’s going.
DM: On the contrary, Europe’s coming more into step with the British Labour position. As Graham said, read the Times yesterday. I don’t want to be arrogant but actually Britain stands very tall in Europe. Graham, you’ll have to persuade the Irish, the Dutch, the Danes, the Germans, all of whom have fishing fleets, to accept your policy. They won’t. Now either you stand with John Redwood and say we will unilaterally breach the treaty, which I think, and every lawyer thinks, and every functionary, every civil servant thinks means quitting
the European Union. That’s the isolationist position. And every businessman in Britain should now really look at the way the Tories have crossed the Rubicon and are much closer to the UKIP position than defending Britain’s national interest which is to be in Europe and helping to shape for what counts for Britain.
JH: Denis MacShane, Graham Brady, thank you very much.
That, it would appear, are the arguments. Brady would have us believe we will not fail in our negotiations, so the question of implementing domestic legislation seems to be a negotiating ploy. MacShane says, quite rightly, that if we unilaterally amended the treaty, we would be subject to huge fines. Then would come the crunch point - would we pay, or would we leave? But that question is unanswered by Brady. We will negotiate... "we have no intention of abandoning renegotiation", he says.