Tuesday 2 February 2016

On Dave's EU Membership "Deal"

History remembers the last time a Tory prime minister went to Europe and came back waving a piece of paper, but the hungry beast to be appeased now is a coterie of backbench MP's, a hapless and hopeless crew blinded by stupidity and consumed by petty-minded hobby horses.

Yes, it's the obligatory EU-renegotiation blog post, seeing as Dave has unveiled a draft deal looking to be the climax of his 2015-16 European tour. And, as absolutely nobody foresaw, the thin gruel he's come home with is getting talked up as an overgenerous banquet. So the headline grabbers are the minor changes for in-work social security for EU workers, a reduction in the level of child benefit, an exemption of the UK from ever-closer political integration (which no one was forcing on us anyway), and a recognition that Parliaments can club together to change EU rules. The way Dave and his cheerleaders carry on, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the whole show isn't already run by the Council of Ministers, but I digress.

As someone who thinks the EU is necessary, but is in sore need of democratic reform and restructuring, this isn't a "good deal". I don't think anyone in the labour movement should be in the business of cheering on cuts to social security eligibility, regardless of where the recipients are from. And we should be wary of lending this snake oil salesman any form of political credibility, which I'm glad to see Alan Johnson avoids doing in his comment on Dave's "achievements". As this was always a package of negotiations driven by the crisis ripping up the Tory party's guts as opposed any kind of dysfunctions in Britain's EU membership. It's a deal struck to ameliorate Dave's awkward squad, nothing else.

Supposing it's all over bar the shouting, what does Dave's deal mean for politics over the next six months? Despite stressing how much he wants the British people to take a considered view and have plenty of time to mull over the arguments, the received Westminster wisdom is for a June referendum. Dave might be venal, but he's not stupid. Dragging out the Scottish independence vote allowed the Yes camp time to build up a genuinely popular movement, and one that still imperils the continued existence of the union. Dave knows a relatively short campaign leaves the fractious Leave outfit ill-placed to whip up populist Europhobia of the kind UKIP were once adept at tapping into. He also wants to minimise the damage to the Tories. In the main, as an alliance of the big fractions of British business, there are fundamental contradictions between those for whom European markets are an opportunity, and those for which it is a threat. Like the various families of Labour, if it wasn't for our electoral system and its steep barrier of entry, then perhaps the Tories would have fragmented long ago. As it stands, Dave has to avoid that eventuality from coming to pass - going early is his best chance of avoiding that fate.

The Europhobic right, however, are unlikely to be mollified by either the sham renegotiation or the short referendum campaign. They are right it changes nothing, and from their standpoint Dave is putting a false prospectus to the country. A referendum premised on endorsing a big lie means it's unlikely they will accept the result if, one hopes, it doesn't go their way. For them, they're being set up and cheated of the full and frank contest they want. If Dave is hoping to treat the running sore that is the Tory party's obsession with Europe once and for all, someone is set to be disappointed.

There's also the small matter of this May's elections in Scotland, Wales, London, and some English councils. Nicola Sturgeon has already made her views clear on the subject, especially as the SNP's campaign is best served by putting distance between themselves and her pro-EU opponents. While it's not going to have much of an affect on the return wind of the nationalist hurricane north of the border, party positioning on the EU could affect elections ostensibly fought on local/regional matters. Clarity on the part of the LibDems, Labour, and UKIP might light their chances whereas open intra-party warfare among the Tories might make them look foolish.

Leaving aside the reverberations for politics, once again the EU talks demonstrate Dave's exceptional luck. While the draft letter doesn't amount to a great deal in the grand scheme of things, to have 27 other states acquiesce either demonstrates a deftness of touch not shown in domestic politics, or a stunningly fortuitous alignment of the stars. I'm inclined to go for the latter, especially as the EU have much bigger fish to fry - the refugee crisis for one, and the now loud, now quiet stagnation and crisis in the Eurozone. Letting the UK take away a few trifles is a price worth paying for keeping the beleaguered project together. However, back home where he faces his toughest test, Dave's charmed life could be about to hit the buffers.

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