Little comfort for Eurosceptics in UK’s cost-benefit analysis of EU membership

Opinion: Reports do not support the view that there is much need for renegotiation

Thu, Feb 20, 2014, 00:01

There are a few golden rules in politics, one of which is that reports ministers would prefer nobody to read are published on the first day of holidays. In Washington, it is known as putting something “out in the Friday trash”.

Each country has its own internally understood language to cover the habit. Last Thursday, British foreign secretary William Hague put out the latest reports in the so-called “Balance of Competencies” review.

Each of them is the result of “a wide-ranging and balanced analysis” that has undergone “rigorous internal challenge to ensure they are balanced, robust and evidence-based”, said Hague.

All of which raises questions about why the British government was so coy about publishing the documents, since this is the second time such papers have emerged from the shadows with as little light as possible thrown upon them by their authors.

Last summer, six were published after MPs had left Westminster for a 10-week summer recess. Last Thursday, the latest tranche came with a poorly flagged “written ministerial statement”, just hours before politicians headed away for the mid-term break.

Eurosceptic Conservatives were less than convinced when the foreign secretary established the review back in July 2012, believing that anything that could come from a process led, if not controlled, by the foreign office was inherently suspect.

Each time they have come out, the reports have broadly made an argument anathema to Eurosceptic ears – favouring, with just a few qualifications and a few complaints, the benefits in the round for the UK of European Union membership.


Strengthening UK hand
Not only that, they have not even bolstered the argument that the UK can, must and should radically renegotiate its membership terms – the plan on which David Cameron has invested much of his political future, assuming he remains in power after May 2015.

The report into trade and investment, for instance, found that the ongoing negotiations on an EU-US trade pact – the so-called Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – could be worth £10 billion to the UK economy.

Even more importantly, such an agreement could let the EU and the US “agree common standards and rules fit for the 21st century, particularly in new and emerging areas, which others would need to follow”.

On trade, the existing widely held narrative argues that the UK is being held back by crucifying amounts of red tape and that it would be better off with bilateral deals with “rising” countries, rather than tying itself to a fading EU.

Big businesses gained more from EU membership than smaller ones, the report on trade accepted, though that varies in cases where smaller firms are involved in global supply chains, as many West Midlands automotive firms are.

In theory, an EU-free UK could offer “lighter-touch regulation were it not bound by EU regulations”, though the majority of people listened to by the authors believed the UK would “adopt quite similar, if not identical standards and regulations” on its own.


Accusation of ‘whitewash’
The tone of the reports has infuriated notable Eurosceptic MPs such as Peter Bone, who told the Daily Mail : ‘This sounds like a Whitehall whitewash. This is a government review, not a Conservative Party review. This exercise was an irrelevance.’

Meanwhile, Angela Leadsom, one of the leading figures in the Conservatives’ “Fresh Start” group, argues that the reports, though containing important work, showed “how constrained we are by the coalition” with the Liberal Democrats.

This seems to be at variance with the facts. The relatively benign view taken so far by the reviews that have been published is not proof of a Whitehall-led conspiracy, since there has been conflict where clear disagreements exist. For example, a paper about the free movement of people was led by the home secretary, Theresa May, who is in the frontline when it comes to defending the government’s handling of immigration.

The paper concentrated heavily on the impact of EU immigration on the UK and welfare benefit problems. In fact, it concentrated too much upon it, in the eyes of the Liberal Democrats, who blocked publication.

If the home office paper could be blocked, then the same could have happened to the others. None of them advocated major changes, even if they still contain a myriad of minor complaints – complaints that could be heard in any other EU capital.

Throughout the last few years, Cameron has sought to mollify the toughest Eurosceptics by intermittently offering concessions. None has sated their appetites.

Now, a majority of Conservatives MPs – even the strongest EU “outers” such as Douglas Carswell – insist that party unity is the most important thing as the Tories prepare for the 2015 general election.

However, the continuation of that feeling depends on the outcome of the European Parliament and local elections in May – when Ukip is expected to win more MEPs than anyone else.


Rise of Ukip
Currently, the Conservatives are talking up the likelihood of Ukip success in the hope of minimising the impact such an outcome would have – or perhaps even creating the outside chance of portraying the challenger as suffering reversals.

Nevertheless, the Conservative “outers” – who number perhaps 30 but no more – will seek to emphasise the Ukip threat, if only to force Cameron to lay out now the red lines he will take in negotiations before the 2015 elections.

Such a strategy is madness, as Cameron, Hague and others are only too well aware. Eurosceptic MPs seeking sustenance from the Hague reviews will find little that will help, but much that complicates the argument.

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