Wednesday, August 25, 2004

A battle lost

Wholly unrecognised by the media, for the last few weeks a major battle has been raging within the ranks of the Conservative Party, to define the territory over which the "Europe" issue will be fought during the general election. And the "good guys" lost.

These are the people who want the Party to take a confrontational approach to "Europe", taking back powers and restoring national control in areas of policy dominated by the EU. That is what the fishing issue has been all about – pushing Howard not only to repatriate the CFP but also to committing, in a letter, to using national legislation to achieve that end, in the event that negotiation fails.

At the time, we considered this a considerable breakthrough, as it would have been a direct challenge to the inviolability of the acquis communautaire, which in turn challenged the hegemony of the commission. The result would have been, eventually, to turn back the tide of integration and break the power of the EU.

On the other side is the Europhile wing. Led by characters such as Jonathan Evans, leader of the Conservative MEP group, its followers are absolutely determined to resist any attempt to weaken the historical commitment of the Conservative Party to European integration.

However, they recognise that the mood of the country is such that they must appear to be taking a Eurosceptic line if they are to have any chance of winning the general election and have, therefore, been crafting a careful line which appears to be Eurosceptic but, in fact, does not commit the Party to any radical action.

In that context, the "drivers of regulation" initiative has been far more important than at first realised. It turns out to be the visible part of this core strategy - a quite deliberate, cynical attempt to present the Conservatives as opposing EU regulation, carefully calculated to avoid confronting the key issue of Brussels control over our legislation or reining back the process of political integration.

There are two key parts to the strategy. The first is to present "gold plating" as the primary cause of burdensome EU regulation - by inference suggesting that the original legislation from Brussels is quite benign. The second, fall-back position is to suggest that if onerous legislation does somehow get through the system, this is because of "lack of scrutiny" by the UK parliament, which hasn't been doing its job properly.

Having thus focused the blame, there is no room whatsoever for allowing that the EU system is at fault, or that Brussels is indeed spewing out an ever-increasing volume of insane laws. If that is for one moment admitted, the game is lost because the Party will then have to admit that it is powerless to do anything about it, and has no intention of doing anything about it.

Thus, after O'Brien's comments on gold plating earlier last week, Digby Jones of the CBI was drawn into the "debate" with its complaints that MPs were "asleep on the job", not doing enough to scrutinise EU legislation. Thereby, the two foundation stones of the strategy were laid.

This second part of the strategy was given something of a boost today in The Times by Bill Cash who has blundered into the debate, firstly by defending the record of the British parliament on scrutiny.

He then argues that everyone should support his "Sovereignty and Parliament Bill", which would allow for all legislation, including that of European origin, to be re-examined. It would then authorise the repeal or amendment of "obsolete or unproductive laws", and require judges to give effect to British laws, even if they were "inconsistent with or conflicted with European laws or treaties".

With his undeserved reputation as a "leading Eurosceptic", Cash evades the central issue of repatriating powers, and thereby turning off the tap at source, instead opting for his own brand of fudge.

But the greatest aid and comfort to the Tory strategists came this morning not from Cash but from Lib-Dem MEP, Christopher Huhne. You know something is amiss when the Lib-Dems and the Tories find common cause, but there we had the egregious Huhne pontificating on the Today programme (6.52 am), to a gullible and uncritical Jon Humphrys that the problem was indeed "lack of scrutiny" by the House of Commons and "gold plating".

Huhne even called in aid the infamous "abattoir directive" claiming – quite wrongly – that the problem was the British insistence on full-time veterinary inspection of abattoirs, and the treasury required "real costs" to be paid, which massively increased their overheads put them out of business. That didn't happen in other countries, claims Huhne.

It really is quite intolerable to have these self-important politicians using this directive as a political football – given the damage they did to the industry – but one would expect Europhile Huhne to do anything he could to avoid having to admit that its was the original legislation at fault – exactly the same tactic that the Tories are adopting.

What happened was that – as distinct from the structural requirements which actually closed most abattoirs – there was a mismatch between the continental and British systems of meat inspection, and that the directive required the continental system to be adopted.

Contrary to Huhne's claim, the directive did indeed require full-time inspection, and the charging directive did require "full costs recovery". This was not an invention by the treasury.

The actual problem was that British vets are not trained in meat inspection, unlike their continental counterparts so, in addition to vets’ costs, abattoirs had to bear the costs of meat inspectors. That created the disproportionate burden, but it arose not through "gold plating" but through the insistence of the EU on "one size fits all" legislation. But this is something Huhne would never admit.

So, with the help of the Lib-Dems, the Tory strategy is underway, and this is going to be pursued right through to the general election. There is not the slightest hope now that the Party will change course and the way is now clear for its eventual defeat, as the British public recognise – largely instinctively – the strategy for what it is, empty rhetoric - a continuation of the Great Deception.

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