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How Labour should deal with Cameron’s sham EU renegotiation promise

Paul Goodman at the Conservative Home website provides a reasonably astute analysis of the fix Cameron finds himself in over his promise to ‘renegotiate’ the UK’s relationship with the European Union:

The explanation [for the lack of an actual plan] isn’t the lack of focus and last-minuteism that Ministers and backbenchers alike unanimously complain about – almost without exception, in my experience……. Rather, it is a terror at the top of the Government of opening up the question of what and how much any renegotiation will aim to achieve.  This isn’t simply because the two parts of the Coalition don’t agree about it.  Cameron and George Osborne worry that setting out a repatriation of power plan will open up not so much a can as a lorry-load of worms.

This is correct, but what Paul doesn’t really nail down is what kid of worms might slither from the lorry.  This is tied to a failure to define what ‘renegotiation’ actually is, and a conflation of that with demands for ‘repatriation of power’.  Negotiation is not the same as making demands.

In fact, Cameron and his team probably do understand the difference between making demands, which can’t be delivered on, and seeking renegotiation, which potentially could.  They understand that negotiation is about give and take.

As I’ve set out before, a negotiated deal on the biggie – freedom of movement for the forrins – is perfectly feasible as, whatever the popular assumption, it doesn’t require treaty change.  If Cameron doesn’t get that, then he’s even worse at the detail than I thought.  But the point about negotiating such a deal is that the UK, and other Northern European countries wanting a piece of this, would have to offer something in return.  Most likely, this would be the (neat) corollary of a suspension to absolute freedom of the movement of capital – again perfectly feasible without treaty change though harder to implement – though it might be other things like a different weighting of cohesion funds towards Eastern and Southern Europe, or a review of the draconian requirements of the six-pack.  Whatever it was, it would be geared towards the long-term convergence of those countries, and thus to the lowering of the ‘threat’ of economic migration.

So why won’t Cameron go there?  Why won’t he get down and dirty with the detail?   Well to be honest I don’t care that much – I don’t care whether it’s the result of incompetence of a leader who’s surrounded himself with the wrong political advisers at the expense of civil servants who know the policy detail, or whether he knows that opening up these issues would start to shed light, just for example, on the government’s refusal to accept food poverty money from the EU; his instinct is, I suspect, to keep things simple.

Labour’s instinct should be different. It has already got as far as saying that the institutions of Europe are far from perfect.  Now, in the absence of any coherent follow-up by Cameron on his rash promises, Labour can set out realistic proposals for negotiation, and start to warm up the governments that it will be doing business with from 2015.

That’s not to say, I hasten to add, that I support any change to the current freedom of movement. It’s simply that I’m confident that the public, when presented with a party actually willing to see where actual negotiations take the country, will soon enough discover that the deal (which could include a presumptions against British citizens’ freedom of movement, as well as more direct economic disadvantages) is just not worth it.


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