The Tory Fresh Start Group is based on smoke and mirrors

Labour Party

Ever moreTories in Westminster are becoming deeply confused about the EU. Surely one of the most confused is back-bencher Andrea Leadsom, leading light of the Fresh Start Group of 100 or so Tory MPs.

The interestingly named Fresh Start Group brings together equally confused Tory back-benchers, many of whom have for quite a while now been working out what this country should seek from a renegotiation of British EU membership. What would agricultural policy, regional policy, social policy and the rest look like, if the Conservative euro-reformers had their way?

What indeed? But the key question here is not what these policies would look like but rather “if the Conservative euro-reformers had their way”.The salient and irrefutable point is that these “euro-reformers” quite simply cannot deliver. Changes to any EU treaty need agreement from all 27 member states. The confused Tory MPs have undeniably worked hard on what used to be called “repatriation of powers”. Sadly for them their labour amounts to nothing more than smoke and mirrors. The British government quite simply does not have control over the EU in the way the confused Tories are claiming.

At the risk of peddling sour grapes, I havehad the experience on more occasions than I care to remember of being made cruelly aware of the lack of understanding of the European Union by British elected representatives. The BBC reported that Mrs Leadsom has taken a swipe at Britain’s representatives in Europe, both officials and elected MEPs, for “going native” – and even speaking with a “weird half French, half German accent”. Rather than insulting her colleagues, Mrs Leadsom would do better to get to grips with the EU if she intends to pontificate on UK membership.

There were, of course, those in the recent debate in Westminster Hall led by Mrs Leadsom who agreed with my contention that Britain would not get what it wanted. Most of them were, inevitably, arch-Eurosceptics such as veteran Maastricht rebel Bill Cash, who wish to leave the European Union. This line is at least honest, if misguided.

The confused Tories who believe EU reform will magically happen because the UK wants it, seem to think the current crisis gives Britain a lot of leverage. Moreover, since the EU needs Britain more than Britain needed the EU, there is plenty of scope for negotiation. In your dreams is all I have to say.

There was, however, some useful tactical advice during the Leadsom debate from the Conservative former cabinet minister, Peter Lilley, who suggested Britain should approach rolling back EU powers in the same way as the European Commission approached extending them – with salami tactics. But he also thought the key battle would be to overturn the acquis, the long-standing doctrine that once the EU acquired competence over a policy area, it was never relinquished. If Britain could establish a precedent for clawing back powers, that would enable more powers to be repatriated in future.

At least in Peter Lilley there seems to be one less confused Conservative. Yet even he does not address the issue that the 26 other EU member states do not want to overturn the acquis which seem to work well for everyone except the UK unfer the current government.

In the event, there were some interesting ideas for reforming the way the Westminster Parliament deals with EU issues – a specialised EU question time and far stronger scrutiny of European directives were two very good proposals. More involvement in EU matters by British MPs and members of the House of Lords is an excellent idea to be welcomed whichever political party introduces it.

As Cameron looks to Norway he will see they are far more integrated with the EU than he likes to think

Labour Party

No-one was more delighted than me when David Cameron said at the Nordic-Baltic Summit earlier in the week that, “the evidence is that there is a positive link between women in leadership and business performance, so if we fail to unlock the potential of women in this labour market, we’re not only failing individuals, we’re failing our whole economy.”

It was, of course, Norway that first introduced quotas as long ago as 2003 decreeing that 40 per cent of directors of listed companies should be women. Iceland then followed with a target that 40 per cent of directors be women by 2013.

Meanwhile, in relation to our own country, a British government policy paper presented at the Nordic-Baltic summit estimated that as female entrepreneurship reached the same levels as in the United States, there would be 600,000 extra women-owned businesses contributing an extra £42 billion to the economy.

As we all know, the Scandinavian countries have excellent records on women and deserve full credit. Britain should definitely follow their example. As an active member of the group Women in Leadership, I commend David Cameron for his speech at the Nordic-Baltic summit. I, and many other women from across the political and social spectrum will, I know, now be monitoring this government to make sure Cameron’s promises are translated into action.  

Norway is a magnificent country which has much going for it, not the least of which is its enviable record on women. Many of those who are anti-EU quote Norway as the example the UK should follow, in that it is outside the EU and therefore, according to the logic of Tory MEP Daniel Hannan and his acolytes, free of “Brussels bureaucracy” with more home-grown democracy.

It has, for some, been all too easy to accept this argument. It is, however, fundamentally flawed.

A report recently commissioned under the chairmanship of Professor Fredrik Sejersted and published by the Norwegian government states, “we [Norway] are almost as deeply integrated as the UK.” Importantly, the report, covered by the BBC online, expresses concern at the political consequences of this state of affairs as Norway is bound, in practice, to adopt EU policies without voting rights. Professor Sejersted calls this “a great democratic deficit …. but this is a kind of national compromise since Norway decided it did not want to join the EU.”

It is worth noting that two-thirds of Norwegian private sector investment goes to Europe and that there have also been high inward flows of EU immigrants into Norway. These are two good reasons why Norway has felt the need to sign up three-quarters of the legislation coming from the European Union, a total of 6,000 legislative acts.

The overarching conclusion to be drawn from Professor Sejersted’s report is that in 2012 no modern democratic country can exist on its own, cut off from its neighbours. Yet this is the underlying demand coming from the 102 Tory Eurosceptic MPs who wrote to David Cameron on 6 February. Since their number included all the officers of the 1922 Committee – Graham Brady, Charles Walker, Mark Prichard and Brian Brinley – and former Cabinet Ministers John Redwood and Peter Lilley, the Norway lobby is obviously a strong one.

My view is that reverting to the status of Norway would be disastrous for the UK. Leaving aside the democratic deficit – that we would be signing up to EU legislation without any say over it – we need to develop a mature British patriotism for the 21st century. This is not about belly-aching about the reach of Brussels but much more, as Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander wrote in the Guardian at the end of last year, about how we, Britain and Europe, engage with the rise of China and India.

David Cameron’s EU problems, not the Milibands, are the real story

Labour Party

Judging by the amount of media coverage generated by David Miliband’s New Statesman article of the “is he going to challenge his brother for the Labour leadership” variety, you would be forgiven for thinking this the at the very top of the political pops. Yet it manifestly is not.

David Miliband has consistently claimed he is not now going to do anything about trying to become Leader of the Labour Party. In addition, in case the mainstream media hadn’t noticed, the Leader of the Labour Party is only the Leader of the Opposition, not the Prime Minister. He is not the head of our government and, as such, has little real power. 

Power, of course, lies with David Cameron, who has troubles of his own which are real rather than in the media’s imagination. As I blogged yesterday and many other times, David Cameron is facing huge problems with his Eurosceptic backbenchers.

Yesterday’s Telegraph letter signed by 102 Tory Eurosceptics including all the officers of the influential 1922 Committee – Graham Brady, Brian Binley, Mark Prichard and Charles Walker – and two former Cabinet Ministers – Peter Lilley and John Redwood – is just one aspect of Cameron’s difficulty. The signatories make up a third of Tory MPs, 102 out of a total of 307, a massive proportion.

Moreover, the Eurosceptics are not going to go away. This is a determined band, some of whom such as the veteran Bill Cash have been around for a very long time peddling their simple message that all things EU are bad and Britain would be better off outside. At the very least they want powers currently located in the EU to be repatriated to Britain.

Then there are the Liberal-Democrats who are the polar opposite. It goes without saying that Cameron needs to keep the 57 Lib-Dem MPs on side to ensure his government survives.

So we already have a situation which is less than desirable. Yet it does not end there. I think that having now had direct experience of the European Union rather than simply listening to others talk about it, David Cameron is beginning to realise that repatriation of powers is not the piece of cake he once believed.

Poor David Cameron and the Conservative Party whips have to contend with one third of their MPs who will pursue their anti-EU crusade to the bitter end while at the same time needing to maintain support from a substantial number of MPs in the other coalition party whose distinctive policy has always been to favour Europe.  

To make matters even worse, David Cameron’s flagship policy on the EU – repatriation of power – is a non-runner. The policy requires agreement from the 26 other EU member states, which I have never believed will be forthcoming.

It’s all a terrible mess for Mr Cameron and it is real. It should be reported in more depth and detail. David Cameron’s EU problems are the headline news story, not whether or not there will be a Labour leadership challenge.

Cameron faces more problems with the Eurosceptics

Labour Party

David Cameron’s feral Eurosceptic backbenchers are not going away.

In a letter to the Daily Telegraph today 102 of them urge the Prime Minister to “opt out” of 130 EU laws, including the European Arrest Warrant, over the next two years. And this is no ordinary letter, signed as it is by the officers of the 1922 Committee – Chairman Graham Brady, Vice-Chairman Charles Walker, Secretary Mark Prichard and Treasurer Brian Brinley together with former Cabinet Ministers John Redwood and Peter Lilley

Crucially, the 102 warn Cameron that if he fails to get these powers back within this timescale, the transfer of powers to Europe will be irreversible.

This sounds to me very much like an ultimatum. The backbenchers apparently want Mr Cameron to use the “opportunity” provided by the Lisbon Treaty to repatriate up to 130 EU rules and regulations on policing. Since the UK opt out is due to end in June 2014, the Eurosceptics see this as their deadline.

Since the Tories have 306 seats in the House of Commons, 102 represents a third of the parliamentary Conservative party. To have such a high proportion of your MPs against you on an issue they believe to be of the utmost importance is not a very comfortable place to be, to put it mildly.

As I have said many times before, repatriation of powers is a policy which cannot be achieved. I can see no reason why 26 EU member states should agree to the demands one country, especially when they do not agree with the demands being made by the UK. What is more, David Cameron has not helped himself in the EU by increasingly marginalising the UK. Taking the Tories out of the centre-right European People’s Party in the European Parliament, and not signing up to the treaty changes in December last year are just the two most significant of Cameron’s actions to have alienated our colleagues in Europe.   

Cameron’s position is made even worse by the fact that many of these Eurosceptic MPs voted for him to be Tory leader because they believed he was one of them.

The Eurosceptics are, of course, merely using the European Arrest Warrant (EAW) as a hook for their own agenda. It would be foolish to claim all is well with the EAW. One of the main complaints concerns proportionality. We know that the UK, and Germany as well, get more warrants than they issue, and nowhere does it state that the warrant must only be used for major crimes. This matter is indeed being investigated and Viviane Reding, EU Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, has acknowledged that the warrant is being misused for low-level crimes.

Having only just got over being castigated for caving in on not opposing the “fiscal compact” countries having access to European Union institutions and the European Court of Justice, David Cameron is facing another onslaught. I’m tempted to wonder how long this war of attrition can go on, especially since the Tories’ Lib-Dem coalition colleagues have a very different, pro-European Union perspective.

Margaret Thatcher, David Cameron certainly is not!

Labour Party

Following much hot air from David Cameron he has revealed just what an empty vessel he really is.

Conceding defeat the prime minister told fellow European leaders ahead of today’s summit in Brussels that he accepts the £107bn EU budget will have to increase by a minimum of 2.9%, the figure already accepted by the European Council, reports the Guardian.

Cameron’s much vaunted telephone offensive which included Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European council about the budget obviously got nowhere.

David Cameron is revealing that he is no Margaret Thatcher and has failed to stand his ground.  The Iron Lady famously stood up to the EU and negotiated a rebate for Britain which has endured to this day. Cameron, on the other hand, has thrown in the towel with undue haste.   

It’s hardly surprising that the Tory Eurosceptics, who have been urging Cameron to fight for a freeze or a cut in the EU budget, are angry. They supported David Cameron because they thought he was one of them.  Yes, Cameron did make sure the Tories in the European Parliament left the centre right European People’s Party to join up with a group of right-wingers whom Nick Clegg famously called a “bunch of nutters”.

However, Cameron is not delivering for the Eurosceptics now and they are not holding back in putting forward their point of view. Bill Cash, Peter Lilley and a host of others were very much in evidence in the Commons Chamber yesterday.

All this goes to show that when a politician does something for short term gain, such as Cameron promising anti-EU measures to get himself elected as Tory Leader, this will come back to bite him very hard when the day of reckoning comes and he cannot deliver his promises. While Margaret Thatcher did deliver hers, David Cameron is proving unable to do so.

Perhaps David Cameron’s assertion that Labour MEPs voted for the 5.9% increase in the EU budget which came before the European Parliament in Strasbourg last week was part of his plan to assuage his Eurosceptic wing.  Who knows?

But what David Cameron said was incorrect. Labour MEPs voted against the final vote to adopt the EU budget. We were very sure that it was wrong at the present time to ask for such an increase in EU spending.

Fortunately Chris Leslie MP, one of Labour’s Treasury Spokespersons, was able to put this right in the Commons debate.

I wonder why Cameron got it so wrong. He does, after all, have an army of researchers at Number 10 and in Whitehall and the EU votes are published a few hours after the votes are taken. He also has several Conservative MEPs who would have known the score.

It could, perhaps be that he wished to discredit the Labour Party by putting out deliberate misinformation. If this is anywhere near the truth, Cameron and his Tory cohorts will brings politics further into disrepute and should be ashamed of themselves.

The European Parliament vote is important in the EU final decision making process on the budget.  As a result of various decisions over the past few years, both the European Parliament and the European Council (the EU member state governments) have equal weight in coming to an agreement on the budget. 

This means that although Cameron has accepted the 2.9% increase, this may not be the final outcome as negotiations between the European Parliament and the Council are currently underway to come to a compromise.

Despite all the brouhaha, the EU budget is not on the formal agenda of today’s European summit but will only be discussed in the margins. If the 2.9% increase is agreed, Britain will contribute an extra £435.2m. If a higher percentage is negotiated, Cameron’s coalition government may get even more than they were bargaining for.