Conservatives walk tightrope on EU reform
Centrist Tories insist there is a deal that can keep the UK in the EU
Britain’s chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne speaking on EU reform at a conference in London yesterday organised by the Open Europe organisation. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
David Cameron bought time a year ago when he promised a referendum offering a clear choice to voters in 2017 on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union, one reformed by then to British tastes.
Nobody ever thought matters would end there, and they haven’t. Last weekend, 95 MPs were said to have signed a demand that the House of Commons should have a veto on every EU law – a measure that would make the union unworkable.
Some of the 95 believed, it seems, that they were signing something woollier, but the majority believe that every time they push Cameron he will bend just a little further in their direction.
Chancellor George Osborne’s speech yesterday may fuel such beliefs, following his toughly-worded declaration that the EU urgently needs fundamental reforms along the lines proposed by London because it “can’t go on like this”.
Some Conservative Eurosceptics will see that he went just a little further than before in hinting the UK could actually quit by posing the possibility that UK voters might “prefer to leave” unless reforms are to their taste.
More significantly, however, Osborne insisted the UK is far from alone in its desire for change, predicting that ever- stronger signals will come from other EU capitals in the months ahead.
Equally, the UK’s needs can be accommodated by the 2017 deadline, because the EU will need another treaty no matter how many times other EU leaders say that they do not want one, he argues.
“What is becoming clearer, as euro zone integration increases, is that we are now at a point where we are stretching the EU institutional architecture to its limits. We risk going beyond what is legally possible or politically sustainable,” he told a conference organised by the pro-reform Open Europe.
“Rather than face up to the truth, those in Brussels are being forced into legal gymnastics as they try to stretch the existing treaties to fit a situation they were not designed for.”
However, the internal contradictions continue. The UK worries about the growing influence of “the club within a club” of euro zone countries.
Yet the chancellor favours co-operation in the creation of a single market in services – a long-held but frustrated EU ambition – by states who want to go further than others.
Former minister Tim Loughton derisively dismissed the letter from the 95 MPs as “a sideshow”.
“Remember we are embarking on a negotiation. There isn’t a black-and-white list of what must be achieved. Otherwise it is instant exit . . .
“It won’t be up to the 95 MPs, it will be up to 60 million people in this country,” he said, emphasising the efforts that are being made to win support from ministers, officials and MPs in other EU states.
In the eyes of many elsewhere in the EU, the Conservatives have laid down an unrealistic timetable, and failed to convince those with whom they need to negotiate that there is any deal they would accept.
Many of the changes sought – less regulation, greater flexibility, a drive to urge competition rather than regulation – could be achieved quickly, if the will among EU states existed, the group believes.
The 2017 deadline might require late-night negotiations, but it can be met, argues MP Chris Heaton-Harris. “The EU constitution was dead forever [after referendum defeats in France and the Netherlands]. Within three years we had Lisbon. Three years is an unambitious timetable.”
For now, the Conservatives believe the tide is with them, but much will depend on the European Parliament elections in May, where the UK Independence Party should surge. If Conservatives are febrile now they could be at panic stations by then.