As we detailed in our press release today – the Con-Lib coalition Government deal on Europe has some things which reform-minded people, such as ourselves, can be happy about, and some things to feel a twinge of disappointment over. A basic summary of our thoughts on the matter is here:
The Conservatives have retained their pledge for a ‘referendum lock’ – guaranteeing that any future transfers of power to the EU be subject to a referendum – which is welcome, and could give citizens the sense of ownership over EU policies that has been missing in recent years.
They have watered down their pledge for a UK Sovereignty Bill – saying instead only that they will “examine the case” for such a Bill. However, since it was never crystal clear how such a Bill might work in practice, we aren’t particularly vexed about this one.
In a somewhat cynical move, the new Government has also made it clear that the UK will not join, or plan to join, the euro over the lifetime of the next Parliament. Since we would have sooner seen Bill Cash say “I agree with Guy (Verhofstadt)”, than a political party recommend joining the euro in the next 4-5 years, the euro question was effectively neutered anyway.
Rather disappointingly the Conservatives appear to have shelved their plans to elevate the position of Europe Minister to Cabinet – this would have promoted the importance of the European Union in UK politics and shown that the Government was ready to become more engaged and forthright in promoting the UK’s interests in Europe.
The new Europe Minister is David Liddington – and not Mark Francois who has shadowed the position since 2007. While we hope David Liddington will approach EU reform with the tenacity that is required, it is a disappointment that the continuity Mark brought to the role over recent years (amid ever-changing appointments on the Labour benches) will not be maintained under the new Government.
The Conservatives have also dropped their pledge for an opt-out in criminal policy, and instead said they will approach any new legislation in justice and home affairs, and whether or not to opt-in, on a “case-by-case basis”. This is clearer a great deal closer to the position of the Lib Dems, who have favoured much more EU integration on justice and home affairs matters than any other party.
The coalition agreement has also dropped the pledge to seek an opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights, and for the repatriation of powers in social and employment policy. Instead, the agreement only reads: “We will examine the balance of the EU's existing competences and will, in particular, work to limit the application of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom.”
This is a touch disappointing, as we have previously argued that this is an achievable, and desirable goal – giving the important impact such legislation has on the UK economy (and which is set to cost £71 billion over the next decade).
However, a key concession on the part of the Lib Dems in the coalition agreement would seem to be this pledge that: “We agree that there should be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament.”
While the Lisbon Treaty transferred a huge number of competences from member states to the EU, it is clearly a welcome step that the Government has committed to no new transfers of power over the next five years.
If interpreted strictly, this pledge has the potential to be very radical indeed, with Angela Merkel stepping up her calls of late that some kind of Treaty change is desirable to strengthen the rules of the eurozone. The Commission's new proposals, set out on Wednesday, do suggest that the possibility of further transfers of economic competence to the EU may be on the horizon.
The Greek crisis has meant that commitments to no more ‘institutional change” for ten years are all well and good, but countries such as Germany need some reassurance that the rules of monetary union will be toughened up and German taxpayers won’t be called on to bail out other eurozone countries who have run into financial difficulties.
Therefore a strict pledge that no more powers should be transferred to the EU/or if they are they should be subject to a referendum, presents the Government with the opportunity for the leverage in negotiations it needs, e.g. on the EU budget.
Is the Con/Lib agreement a good deal?
Well, some of the most important bits from the Conservatives’ Europe policy are still in there – notably the referendum lock and a pledge to transfer no new powers to the EU.
It is a disappointment to see a weakening in their stance on social and employment policy and justice and home affairs, but all marriages need compromise and given the gulf that lay between the two parties on the question of Europe, there is reason not to be too glum.
While the Europe issue may be a ‘sleeping dog’ at the moment – rest assured that the preparations for a full-throttled push for a European economic government will mean that the question of new transfers of powers are not far off.