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Why it cannot work

Posted by Richard Tuesday, October 05, 2004

No one disputes that Howard is sincere when he promises to return powers from the EU to the UK, as he did again in his speech today.

The problem is that, to do so, he must negotiate changes to the treaties and, for the treaties to be changed, all 25 member states must agree. In other words, if any one member state say "no", even if it is little Luxembourg or Malta, then Howard does not get his powers back.

Thus, the central question that Howard has to confront is "what will you do if they say ‘no’". No matter how sincere he might be in all other respects, until he can answer that question credibly, his promises have no substance – he simply cannot deliver.

In recent times, Howard has had two stabs at an answer. The first was in the now notorious Today interview with Jon Humphrys on 9 June.

Then, Howard invoked the name of Margaret Thatcher, and tactics during the rebate argument, his claim being that agreement on that also required unanimity. The point he misses, of course, was that the Community wanted an increase in the budget, which also required unanimity, so Thatcher was able to withhold her agreement on that until a rebate settlement had been agreed.

Humphrys didn’t buy the argument, so Howard elaborated:

MH: I tell you why. Because, you see that this would not be one isolated subject. I want to have a new deal in Europe. I want to have a fresh look at the whole basis on which the European Union is currently run. And I want to say to our partners, look there are those of you who want to integrate more closely. And Britain’s been saying no for some time now, and you’re fed up of our saying no, and I’m fed up of our saying no. So let’s have a new deal. If you want to integrate more closely, that’s fine. We don’t want to stop you doing what you want to do. I…

JH: (interruption – unintelligible) …integrating more closely… it’s not the point here, that’s not what we’re talking about here.

MH: Let me finish. We don’t want to stop you doing what you want to do as long as you don’t make us do what we don’t want to do. So let’s sit down together, let’s look at the current arrangements. Where they’re working well - and there are many respects in which they are working well - that’s fine, that’s very good. We won’t disturb those. But where in the light of our experience over the many years for which the European Union has been operating, we can see that it’s not working well and it would be much better if things were restored to national control, let’s do that. Let’s not have a one-way street Europe in which the only decisions that are taken transfer yet more power from the nation states to Brussels. Let’s have a look and see that where there are things that the nation states could do much better, much more effectively, let’s sit down together and say that would be a good idea.
To be fair, Howard then backtracked, issuing a letter from his office the following day, stating that if the fishing negotiations did not succeed,

…British Parliament is supreme and we would introduce the necessary legislation to bring about full national and local control.
But today, in his conference speech, he was back to his original line, one mirrored by Redwood. In order to repatriate powers, he said:
This is what I will do. Some of our European partners want to integrate further. I'll say to them - "fine. Britain will no longer try and stop you. But we must have something in return. We want to bring powers back from Brussels to Britain"… We want out of the social chapter, which is a threat to British jobs. We want out of the common fisheries policy, which is destroying communities. And we want more British aid to be distributed from London and less from Brussels. It's time to bring powers back to Britain.
To get to this point, he makes two central assumptions. The first is that the other "European partners" do want to integrate further, to the extent that they are prepared to allow Britain to go its own way. But the second, and more tenuous, is that they need Britain’s assent in order to pursue that goal. In fact, the assumption is no so much tenuous as wrong, on two counts.

Firstly, as we saw with Maastricht, the "partners" do not have to make agreements within the treaty structure. Then, John Major was opposed to the Social Chapter, which had to be agreed by unanimity, and it is widely assumed that he negotiated an opt-out. He did not.

What happened was that the other eleven partners agreed a separate protocol, outside the framework of the treaty, applicable to them but not the UK. They thus circumvented the unanimity requirement and the Social Chapter was not incorporated into the Treaty until Amsterdam, with the accession of Tony Blair.

Secondly, there is the possibility of "Enhanced Cooperation", introduced at Amsterdam. As modified at Nice, in all areas apart from foreign and security policy – where the veto still applies, any eight member states (or more) can agree to "enhancing the process of integration within the Union" by working together on policies at present not covered by the treaties, using the institutions and procedures of the Union to implement them.

Additionally, of course, two or more member states can agree to work together more closely through bilateral agreements – as have France and Germany – but, notwithstanding that, it is clear that Howard cannot threaten a brake on further integration as leverage to obtain repatriation of powers. Any theoretical veto he might have is meaningless.

On that basis, Howard’s scenario simply will not work. In the final analysis, the only certain bargaining chip he has is to threaten the withdrawal of the UK unless the Community accedes to his demands – the so-called "nuclear option". So far, he has not shown any willingness to use the nuclear option. Without it, his policy lacks credibility.