9 November 2015

On Europe, David Cameron should ignore the Anger Translator


As David Cameron prepares to post his letter to EU President Donald Tusk, setting out his minimum conditions for avoiding Brexit, Walter Ellis urges him to ignore the doomsayers

Key & Peele, a weekly TV show starring America’s most acclaimed comedy duo of recent years, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, featured a recurring sketch in which President Obama delivers a stern, rational monologue on the issues of the day while Luther, his demented “anger translator,” rages behind him, denouncing his opponents as liars, motivated by greed, unable to comprehend the simplest of arguments.

For years now, something similar has been happening to Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP for South East England and long-time friend of CapX. The Peruvian-born, Oxford-educated Hannan, subtle, mild-mannered and urbane, with the ability to speak fluently in three languages, would like David Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union to succeed. Unfortunately, with the best will in the world, he can’t see how it is possible. But, just in case we haven’t quite understood, the UKIP leader Nigel Farage jumps in, unbidden, behind him, eyes popping, pint in hand, fag in mouth, repeating the message in hysterical tones. Europe is run by “Communists” and “common criminals,” he raves. They won’t listen to us. If we don’t get out soon, we’re all doomed.

We should listen to both of them – though in the case of Farage we have little choice. But what if they are wrong?

Those who argue against meaningful reform of the EU generally start with the claim that nothing of substance can be achieved outside of the treaties and that changing the treaties is as likely as re-writing the Koran.

If that is so, how is it that the treaties themselves keep changing? There have been eight so far, from the Treaty of Paris, in 1951, that established the (since abandoned) European Coal and Steel Community, to the Lisbon Treaty, signed on the last day of December 2007, that extended the powers of the European Parliament, provided for a permanent President of the European Council and created the office of High Representative.

Institutions evolve, and as they do so they not only move ahead, they also adjust and attempt to correct past mistakes. Fine tuning is often the difference between success and failure.

There is no poetry in this. Anyone ploughing their way through the EU’s melancholy compendium of treaties – eureaucracy’s response to the Communist Manifesto – would surely conclude that the constitution of the European Union is not Holy Writ. It has been revised, redrafted and restructured continuously over the last 65 years by generations of men in suits whose ossified idealism leads them to see Europe not as a dream, but as an ongoing continental business conference.

Which is where the Brits come in. Who says Cameron can’t take advantage of the mounting inefficacy and unremitting dullness of Europe? He could start by exploding the myth that everything has to be seen in the light of “ever closer union,” an injunction with as little practical validity as the First Commandment, “I am the Lord Thy God … Thou shalt have no other Gods before me”  – a requirement that surely leaves open at least the possibility of lesser deities.

Yes, the 19 member states that are members of the Eurozone are, in theory committed to political union. But when is that going to happen? Right across Europe, governments and opposition parties are grumbling about loss of sovereignty and too much too soon. You only have to look at the “common” response to the migrant crisis to realise that the “Union” remains an assemblage of nation states. It’s not just in the outer ring that doubts have risen to the surface about a United States of Europe. The French are also in two minds. When push comes to shove, not even Germany is certain to push for a measure anytime soon that would see control of the world’s fourth-largest economy pass from Berlin to Brussels.

Britain should take advantage of this period of uncertainty. In recent weeks, a growing number of voices have been heard endorsing the idea of a two-speed Europe, in which the inner core do whatever it is they wish to do (or not) and the rest, as associate members, come on board when appropriate.

Would this require treaty change? Very well, then, let us have treaty change. There are plenty of cities left in Europe that have yet to lend their name to an EU Treaty. Why not a treaty of London? It wouldn’t happen all at once. Committees would have to be established and a timetable laid down. But the British Question is fast rising to the top of the EU agenda and it is time to catch the tide. Others, including the former (and possibly future) French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Frans Timmermans, first vice-president of the European Commission, and the Italian foreign minister Paulo Gentiloni, have already put a positive, even communautaire, spin on the idea of different nations advancing at their own pace towards a shared goal that endlessly disappears into the middle distance. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, on whom everything may ultimately depend, almost certainly agrees.  E Plurabus Unum doesn’t have to mean the end of states’ rights.

Europeans are keen to have Britain as a partner. They know that while the increasingly Disunited Kingdom would be diminished by leaving the EU, the EU would be similarly depleted. A UK pull-out would be a clear signal to the world, coming after the near-collapse of the euro and seven years of economic chaos, that the world’s greatest trading bloc is coming apart at the seams.

This fear, this rumbling of disquiet, should be deployed to tip the balance of probabilities in Britain’s favour.

It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which, a bit like English votes for English laws, Europe not merely accepts, but embraces, the idea of associate membership. The key areas in which Britain would expect full representation are obvious: the single market; financial regulation (with opt-outs); competition law; a reformed Common Agricultural Policy; regional aid; international development aid; foreign policy; and defence cooperation (if any).

The only one of these that presents an obvious difficulty is financial regulation, which, as it happens, is currently the responsibility of Lord Hill – Jonathan Hill –  the British Commissioner in Brussels. The fact is that with Britain firmly outside the eurozone, the UK cannot expect to influence (other than by example) how those countries that use the euro set their interest rates, intervene in the markets or police financial trading. Nor could Brussels tolerate a situation in which the City operated as a rogue player, exploiting the EU and siphoning off investments by presenting itself as an alternative, anything-goes casino. But, with mutual respect in place, there is no reason that London, Frankfurt and Brussels cannot get along, to their tri-mutual advantage. The Treaty of London could yet be the best deal the City has ever done.

Institutionally, the UK could give ground by agreeing that it will not in future nominate one of its own as President of the European Commission or President of the Council – though it would make sense in that case for it always to have a Commission vice-president (one of six) and that, periodically, a Brit should hold the post of High Representative. Britain, mindful of devo-max in Scotland, might also propose a reduction in its representation in the European Parliament should the Eurozone countries ever achieve political union. Those MEPs remaining would concentrate on the issues within the British remit and on ensuring that both Westminster and their constituents are kept appraised of what is going on in their name.

And so to the pachyderm in the corridors of power. Free movement of labour, without discrimination on grounds of nationality, is held to be one of the “four freedoms” of the European Union. Arguably, it is in need of root and branch reform, but, failing that, it can be held up to scrutiny and loopholes exposed. There are already limits to the time in which job-seekers can remain if they fail to find work; there is already a requirement that new arrivals take out health insurance; there is already an understanding that migrants and their families should not impose an undue burden on the host country.

Whitehall’s best and brightest can surely build on this. No one is arguing that EU nationals should be banned from working in Britain (even Nigel Farage has admitted that the great bulk of those already here should be allowed to remain). But it has to be on a sensible basis that removes the suspicion that certain EU governments are solving their unemployment crisis by dumping their jobless on Britain.

Most migrant workers would not be affected by a tightening of the regulations, only those who exploit the system. The right of EU citizens to live and work in the UK would be maintained. Importantly, all restrictions agreed would be applied to British citizens – all 1.8 million of them – living elsewhere in the EU.

Beneficiaries of the status quo will obviously object to change. They need to be reminded that in the event of a UK withdrawal from the EU all benefits will be removed from those of their citizens without jobs who choose to remain, followed, in time, by their deportation. Such a prospect should concentrate minds wonderfully.

Nothing is fixed. The future has not yet been written. The core nations of the EU are likely to prefer the cohesion that would come from a more closely integrated Eurozone and a surrounding, unjudgemental comfort zone. But if it should prove the case that the EU cannot stomach the idea of reduced, or associate, membership for Britain, then Brexit will have to be contemplated, negotiated with whatever is left of goodwill on all sides. Until then, we should not assume the worst.

Walter Ellis a writer based in France.