The balance between Westminster and Brussels is broadly correct

Labour Party

Downing Street will, according to the Financial Times, release official reports on Thursday concluding that the balance of powers between Westminster and Brussels in key policy areas is broadly correct.

The assiduously hidden balance of competencies exercise has therefore blown up in David Cameron’s face. Designed to keep the Eurosceptics quiet, the review of the EU’s competences, which the Foreign Secretary launched in July 2012, tells a very different story from what the sceptics and possibly the Prime Minister himself wanted to hear.

An audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK, the review’s official blurb states, “It is important that Britain has a clear sense of how our national interests interact with the EU’s roles, particularly at a time of great change for the EU.” It goes on to say that government departments will consult Parliament and its committees, business, the devolved administrations, and civil society to look in depth at how the EU’s competences (the power to act in particular areas conferred on it by the EU Treaties) work in practice. Moreover, our European partners and the EU institutions will also contribute evidence to the review, and it will examine issues that are of interest across the EU, seeking to improve understanding and engagement.

No-one can say that the review wasn’t thorough. Parliament and its committees, the devolved administrations, business and civil society plus Britain’s European partners add up to a very wide range of opinion. And they conclude that Britain’s relationship with the European Union is just about right. In fact, these studies include a strong endorsement of the commercial advantages of Britain’s EU membership.

Tellingly, Number 10 has ordered low-key release for these reports. There is only one reason for such behaviour, namely that Downing Street fears that the findings of the balance of competencies exercise do not support the case for a radical renegotiation of EU powers. In other words, David Cameron’s gamble that this review would calm the Eurosceptics has utterly failed.

There is something very unseemly about a Prime Minister who will undertake official studies and use taxpayers’ money for Party advantage. It’s not the kind of conduct we expect from our government, and it’s even worse when the instigator wants to conceal the findings of the review he initiated because it came up with the wrong result.

Thankfully for democracy in Great Britain, the Financial Times reported on the studies, allowing people to know what has been going on. Congratulations to that excellent newspaper. What would we do without the FT?


Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

Europe dominated this week, with Euroscepticism grabbing headlines not just in the UK but across the continent. On Thursday European Commission vice president Viviane Reding accused British leaders of bowing to populism on the European issue, describing many of the supposed threats the EU brings as “the invention of politicians who like to have populist movements in order to win in elections”. She suggested that by succumbing to short-term electoral temptations politicians were potentially “destroying the futures” of their people.

Reding was joined by Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, who described Eurosceptics in his own country as “brainless people”. And throughout the week there was criticism of the UK in many quarters, with a journalist writing in the widely read Spanish daily El Pais that “How Great Britain Turned Into Little England could easily be 2014’s bestselling essay”.

None of this dissuaded Eurosceptics, and the week ended with a large bloc of Conservative MPs writing to David Cameron calling for a national veto of EU Laws. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, who led the 95-strong group behind the letter, described the EU’s effect on lawmaking as “acidic and corrosive” and said it undermined British democracy.

While senior Tories were quick to slap down the issue – William Hague called the requirements set out in the letter “unworkable” – they are largely responsible for the increasingly forceful and unrealistic demands made by Eurosceptics. David Cameron’s policy of appeasement has seen he and other frontbenchers deliberately conflate the Europe question with ‘dog whistle’ issues like immigration, in order to try and convince those on the right that he is on their side.

What Cameron underestimates is the inexorable nature of Euroscepticism – the ‘ever greater’ isolation that UKIP and Conservative diehards want from Europe and the rest of the world. Being anti-EU is in essence an irrational position, which ignores economic and industrial arguments in favour of a hazy and parochial utopia. It does not allow for compromise. The more ground the Government concedes to its own party’s ultras, the more they will ask for – and the more unpleasant, distorted and short-term the debate will become.

This week also saw a major victory in the battle against homophobia in sport, with former Everton, Aston Villa and West Ham footballer Thomas Hitzlsperger becoming The Premier League’s first openly gay player. Hitzlsperger, who recently retired, told a German newspaper “I was never ashamed of being who I am,” but admitted that homosexuality is heavily stigmatised in professional football.

The former German international played at centre-back for most of his career, and was renowned for his no nonsense style – comprehensively putting paid to stereotypes about gay sportsmen. There are hopes that, with many of supporters’ prejudices against homosexuality retreating, there will be more openly gay players in future.

Social attitudes have come a long way since 1990, when Justin Fashanu became British football’s first openly gay player. Fashanu’s coming out resulted in abuse and ostracism – he tragically committed suicide in 1998 – but a lot has changed since then. I am delighted that Hitzlsperger has taken such a bold position, and would like to congratulate him on his courage. Hopefully more gay players will follow suit, and we will finally be able to overcome the beautiful game’s biggest taboo.

Cameron is again putting party before country

Labour Party

There is a wise adage in politics that leaders, representatives and their parties should listen and respond to the questions the people, their electorate, are asking rather than matters which endlessly fascinate professional politicos but leave virtually everybody else (99.999 per cent of the population) cold.

Enter the torrid and seemingly endless Tory debate on Europe. Begun in earnest under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, the Conservatives remain in utter disarray over whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union. As Janan Ganesh  of the Financial Times succintly put it, the Tory Party is suffering from “a single-issue neuralgia that knows no equivalent in any major party in the west”.

And nobody except professional politicians actually cares. Opinion polls consistently show that whether or not Britain remains a member of the European Union is not central to people’s lives. According to YouGov they are far more concerned about jobs and prices, schools and hospitals. Although it pains me as an MEP to say it, EU membership is little more than peripheral in terms of voters’ priorities.

All of which leads to the inevitable conclusion that those Tories who fight in such a relentless and unremitting way to get Britain out of the European Union are not answering any question asked by those who voted for them. Instead they are reinforcing their own strange view of the world whereby the EU is seen as the source of almost all that is wrong with Britain and we would all be massively better off without johnny foreigner telling us what to do.

This could be understood and forgiven if it were just a few misguided backbenchers banging the drum. While this may have been the case prior to William Hague’s disastrous four years as Conservative leader from 1997 to 2001, the Tory tide most definitely turned during the first years of the 1997 Labour Government. Local Conservative Associations selected ever more anti-EU candidates while those already in Parliament gained ground. The only comparable episode in recent British politics was the Labour Party during the 1980s when Labour lurched to the left espousing causes such a unilateral nuclear disarmament which the majority of the British people did not want.

Yet the Tories in 2013 are very different position on EU membership. While Labour was in opposition in 1983 when the party wrote “the longest suicide note in history”, the Conservatives are in government, albeit in a coalition, the other part of which, incidentally, does not share their EU phobia. It’s one thing not to listen to the people when the only damage will be that the opposition party does not get elected. It’s quite another not to listen when in government and the party can make a difference to people’s lives.

David Cameron’s unseemly haste to publish the EU Referendum Bill surely indicates that he, the Prime Minister, is not listening to the people. Instead he is putting what he perceives as his Party’s interest first, both internal – pacifying his rabid Eurosceptic backbenchers and external – doing something about UKIP. Cameron is running scared yet in incapable of showing leadership. He appears more like a headless chicken in a mire-filled farmyard than the world statesman he wanted to present during his visit to the United States and meeting with President Obama.

Tragically for David Cameron his strategy of appeasement – appease UKIP and they will not take any more Tory votes and appease the anti-EU backbenchers so that they will pipe down – is patently not working. He is our Prime Minister and as such he would do well to learn basic lessons. Appeasement does not work. Cameron should listen to the people rather than try and maintain an impossible position on something a large majority of the population does not rate as a priority.

Repatriation of powers really is smoke and mirrors

Labour Party

France and Germany have refused to participate in Prime Minister David Cameron’s much-vaunted examination of whether some EU powers should be returned to member states.

Reported in the Financial Times on 2 April, this extremely significant development has unfortunately received little attention in the British media. Since the story broke before the Thatcher demise, there was no excuse for ignoring such important news.

David Cameron’s flagship policy is now in tatters, as predicted many times on this blog. I first mentioned the impossibility of repatriation of powers as long ago as March 2010, before Cameron achieved the highest office. It was blindingly obvious to those of us engaged in European politics that there would never be the agreement required from the 26 other EU member states for repatriation to happen.

According to the FT, Paris and Berlin consulted with one another before concluding that the exercise known as the “balance of competences” was about serving Britain’s domestic political interests and not an EU issue as such. The two countries took this view even though the British government sent letters to each of the 26 other EU countries explaining the approach would be even-handed.

Cameron, of course, wants to use the results of the balance of competences review to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union. Now that France and Germany have refused to participate in Cameron’s little scheme, renegotiation looks less and less likely. The Franco-German axis seems to be at one on this. The previous position where Hollande was against what he called “cherry picking” , (ie the UK keeping what it wanted such as the single market while opting out of European social legislation) while Merkel seemed to be more sympathetic to the UK position has obviously hardened into that of opposition to Cameron’s impossible policy.

Indeed, the FT was quite clear that most EU governments have indicated extreme reluctance to re-open the EU treaties. It is, moreover, unclear whether Cameron has enough political sympathy among his EU partners to engineer a one-off deal for Britain.

So it’s all ending in tears for Cameron and his side-kick William Hague. Fortunately for Mr Cameron and the Con-Dem government the end of one of the major promises in the Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election has gone virtually unnoticed. Shame on all those who seek to cover up Tory incompetence and their lack of understanding on EU and international matters.

Cameron’s New Year’s Resolution

Labour Party

The New Year is a time for resolving to do the things you should have been doing or should have done in the previous year.  For David Cameron, that means making his position on Europe clear in a speech he intends to deliver in the Netherlands later this month.

Douglas Alexander pre-empted the speech in the New Statesman this week, asking Cameron to make a decision that is best for the United Kingdom and not his leadership. You can read it here.

As Douglas Alexander points out; “the timing and content of this speech have little to do with policy and everything to do with politics”.  Cameron has always been in a particularly tight spot when it comes to Europe; with coalition partners that are pro-EU, and his outward support for the UK’s continued membership; he has to contend with a large portion of his party who think of little else but an in/out referendum.

Douglas makes a strong case against a referendum in his article, the most important point being:

“Announcing an in/out referendum halfway through this parliament to take place more than halfway through the next, given the Conservatives’ hostility towards Europe, could risk up to seven years of economic uncertainty, threatening vital investment and effectively playing Roulette with the country’s economic future.”

In fact, Cameron’s own Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has stated in the House of Commons that “It would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.”

At this point it is unlikely that Cameron will announce an in/out referendum.  More likely it will be a statement of intent to repatriate a number of powers from the European Union.  I have said many times before that this idea is rather fantastical, as it would mean treaty renegotiations.  Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, has stated recently that “We’re either a union or we’re not… The EU is not an à la carte menu”.

So when Cameron fails to get these powers back from Europe, as he no doubt will, he may find himself backed in to a corner with his party and forced to hold that in/out referendum.

The dangers of this have been pointed out by a number of business leaders who yesterday wrote a letter to the Financial Times stating that his current stance on Europe risked ‘destabalising the British economy’.  The letter is signed by businessmen including Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, Sir Michael Rake of BT, Jan du Plessis of Rio Tinto and Malcolm Sweeting, the senior partner at Clifford Chance, a major law firm.

The letter states that:

“We must be very careful not to call for a wholesale renegotiation of our EU membership which would almost certainly be rejected.  To call for such a move in these circumstances would be to put our membership of the EU at risk and create damaging uncertainty for British business, which are the last things the Prime Minister would want to do.”

When everyone from the business world to people within your own Cabinet are telling you that the path you are on is folly, it might be time to take some notice and stand up to that part of your party leading you down this dangerous road.

This is a time of great change in the United Kingdom, Europe and the world.  The best position we could be in right now is within the EU.  Reforms are needed, but we can be part of making the union work better, but not if Cameron continues to alienate himself from the rest of the EU with unreasonable and impossible demands.

Cameron and Hague are being dishonest on Europe

Labour Party

The excellent David Aaronovitch of the Times now joins the FT’s Janan Ganesh in the ranks of national political commentators who are getting to grips with the European Union.

Aaronovitch’s colourful metaphor in yesterday’s Times summed up current Government’s position and showed just how flawed their line on the EU really is.

David had a childhood friend called Denny with whom he played toy soldier games re-enacting the Napoleonic Wars. Denny, the French commander, was, according to Aaronovitch, “dashing, ingenious and fatally elaborate. His plans were complex and daring, involving clever feints and diversions. But to come to fruition they relied on the other players behaving in ways that they simply didn’t. So usually he lost.”

The brutal fact of the matter is that the while Cameron-Hague “route map” may appeal to Eurosceptics, and maybe even those who are lukewarm on the subject, these are not the people Messrs C&H will have to convince.

In order to achieve the holy grail of treaty renegotiation and repatriation of powers from Brussels to London, the British Government will have to convince all 26 other EU member states that this is in their interest, the interest of the EU as a whole. Aside from some justice and home affairs matters where the UK can opt out, the idea that powers will come back to Britain is utter pie in the sky.

I would ask all of you reading this to seriously ask yourself why would the 26 other EU member states agree to the UK taking back powers? EU treaties are exhaustively negotiated and eventually agreed by all the countries. In most instances change can therefore only happen if all member states, or at the very least a substantial majority, agree.

The feral Tory Eurosceptics claim to love the EU single market. In order for trade to be fair across the single market with no country having an unfair advantage or disadvantage, the market is regulated and laws put in place to secure the same treatment for employees across the EU. Membership of the single market therefore confers responsibilities as well as rights.

It is these rights the Tories want to repatriate, to destroy in other words. Employment and social legislation would go as would the equalities agenda. This Conservative-led Government wants the UK to enjoy the privileges of the EU single market without its responsibilities.

I ask you again, why would the other 26 member states confer this special status on the UK? Why would 26 countries who accept the responsibilities as well as the rights of the single market allow one country, who, to be honest they don’t really like, to opt out of the difficult stuff?

The rest of the EU is simply not going to behave as Cameron and Hague want them to. David Aaronovitch’s analysis is far more realistic: In his piece yesterday he puts forward this scenario:

“In the run up to the European elections the Conservatives will announce their commitment to a referendum on Europe based on their negotiations about powers. A year later they’ll go to the country on a manifesto based on negotiating the new balance and promising a referendum based on the results. [Assuming they win the 2015 election which I don’t think they will] they’ll then negotiate – their hand supposedly strengthened by having won an election on those terms – and a referendum will finally be held in 2017 or 2018. In their imaginations the referendum will endorse the newly negotiated position and Britain and possibly a few other countries will take their places, um, somewhere in an imagined optimal adjacent European space, where you get all the advantages of European association and few of the downsides.”

Dream on Messrs Cameron and Hague. I assure you your dishonesty will be found out.


The BBC World Service is important and should be properly funded

Labour Party

There appears to be no end to our economic woes. Britain’s economy slipped into its second recession since the start of the financial crisis around the turn of the year, and fears of a longer slump have been rising as companies hold back investment. What is more, there has been a sharp deterioration in the outlook for the global economy over the last six weeks.

All this has apparently caused Bank of England governor Mervyn King to back an extra £50bn of quantative easing,

Explaining his position to the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee, King said, “What has particularly concerned me in the last several months – why I have voted for more easing policy – was my concern about the worsening I see in the position in Asia and other emerging markets, adding “…my colleagues in the United States are more concerned than they were at the beginning of the year about what is happening to the American economy”.

According to the Guardian, Mervyn King went on to say, “We are in the middle of a deep crisis, with enormous challenges to put our own banking system right and challenges for the rest of the world that they are struggling with.”

It is now quite clear  that Britain has not recovered from the 2008/2009 slump that has left many Britons worse off, and fears are rising that another prolonged recession would do lasting damage to the economy.

You would have thought that the Tory-led Coalition Government would realise that it needs all the help it can get to make sure Britain’s interests are recognised in other countries and that the damage caused by the economic crisis is minimised across the world. One way of achieving this aim is through the soft power wielded by the BBC World Service.

The global impact of the World Service was, in fact, graphically illustrated last week when Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi toured the organisation’s offices, meeting many of the broadcasters she listened to while under house arrest  in Rangoon.

Unbelievably, at the end of 2010 the Foreign Office under William Hague decided to slash the World Service budget by around 20%, or £46m a year, by 2014. As a result the BBC in January 2011 confirmed plans to close five of its 32 World Service language services, estimating that audiences will fall by more than 30 million, from 180 million to 150 million a week.

As if this wasn’t enough, the BBC executive who runs the World Service, Peter Horrocks, has recently asked his journalists to come up with schemes to raise money.

This is surely no way to treat the World Service which truly justifies the over used soubriquet “national treasure”. The cut to its funding by the current Tory-led Government was a major misjudgement which totally underestimated importance of the World Service in boosting Britain’s standing abroad, a vital requirement in these perilous economic times.

I recently had an inkling of how the BBC is perceived when a Swedish MEP told me just how honoured and overjoyed he was to be invited on to the BBC “The Record Europe” programme. David Cameron, William Hague and the other luminaries in the Coalition Cabinet would do well to take such views on board. The BBC is the face and voice of the UK across the world and it benefits Britain enormously. It would be a real tragedy if political dogma were allowed to prejudice this huge asset.

Marginalised Cameron tries to defend his EU U-turn

Labour Party

“A veto is not for life, it’s just for Christmas.” Congratulations to Ed Miliband on this perfect one-liner. David Cameron was indeed on the back foot in the House of Commons yesterday answering questions on  the Brussels summit.

The reason – Cameron is trying to look both ways and utterly failing. Britain is a member of the European Union but opted out of, not vetoed, changes to the Lisbon Treaty in December last year. (Thanks to Labour MP Chris Bryant for this succinct wording).

Unable to sustain his threat to prevent the 26 EU member states that signed up to the “fiscal pact” in December from using the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to uphold their agreement, David Cameron was forced into an embarrassing U-turn. He now accepts that the “fiscal pact” countries can use the European institutions to make sure the treaty changes are upheld.  

Cameron is, however, trying to detract from the mess he has made of this whole saga by telling us he will jump on the 25 (the Czech Republic now appears to have joined the UK) if they do anything which harms the EU single market. If this happens, Cameron will attempt to take measures against the treaty signers.

This is yet another example of Cameron nonsense. No issues concerning the single market are related to the changes to the Lisbon Treaty put forward in December. They are separate matters.

Cameron is again coming up with smoke and mirrors just as he did over the repatriation of powers idea. It goes like this: Cameron, himself an arch-Eurosceptic, needs to keep his feral Eurosceptic backbenchers on board, not least because they were instrumental in securing his leadership of the Conservative Party. However, David Cameron is now the Prime Minister of Great Britain and has duties and obligations in the European Union, not to mention the need to maintain relationships with key EU players. Moreover, Conservative policy is to stay in the EU.

So Cameron is really in a bit of a fix. He cannot fulfil his obligations to all sides. So he’s doing a bit of both and being mightily unsuccessful in the process. The Eurosceptics are still not happy while Jack Straw echoed the feelings of many when he said yesterday that “outside the (EU) door is not a good place to be.”

Never underestimate the extent of  the UK’s marginalisation in the EU under David Cameron’s leadership. Taking the British Conservative MEPs out of the centre-right European People’s Party Group in the European Parliament massively annoyed Angela Merkel. The opt-out, not veto, in Brussels on December 9 caused French President Sarkozy to refuse to shake Cameron’s hand. Merkel and Sarkozy, always an intriguing double act, are growing ever closer with Merkel pledged to support Sarkozy’s presidential election campaign, according to the Financial Times.

 Being a member of an important organisation but not fully committed to it strikes me as a completely ridiculous position. Would David Cameron and William Hague take the same view on NATO? 

We are in the EU, and have been for nearly 40 years. While it is by no means perfect, Britain is surely better in the European Union than lost in the twilight zone outside, especially since the UK could take a leading role if our leaders wished to do so.

Other European countries see working together as a real advantage and many not yet in the EU are very keen to join.

The British idea that we are better off alone is a myth from a past imperial age. Yet even then, Britain itself was never really alone. Since the 18th century we had a world-wide empire to back us up. Now that is no longer there, our only tenable world role is to be a major player in the EU.

The EU should keep talking to Iran

Labour Party

William Hague, along with all the other EU foreign ministers, was wrong to impose economic sanctions on Iran yesterday.

It is, of course, true that the Iranian government is disingenuous to talk about wanting a nuclear capability only for energy. With massive oil reserves this really does not ring true. Will their next argument be that Iran wants nuclear energy so it can go green?

I hasten to add that I do not support  the current government in Iran in any way shape or from, and particularly disapprove of the Iran’s treatment of women as second class citizens. I also apply my own personal boycott by not appearing on Press TV,  a television service supported by the Iranian government.

The difference though is that this is my personal decision, not a government decision.

The EU and the West in general needs to talk to the Iranian government.

We also need to plan for the inevitability that Iran, together with other countries, will obtain nuclear technology. Surely the experience of oil sanctions on Iraq should teach us that this way forward will not work. The sanctions will be breached. They will be used by the Iranian government to justify their actions.

We also run the risk of increasing oil prices at a time when the British and European economies are in poor shape following the transgressions of various bankers.

The EU imposition of sanctions against Iran seems a desperate last push to stop the inevitable. Governments in the West need to plan for a multipolar world recognising the inevitability of  nuclear weapons. This is not an easy position and one which I would find hard to accept, while at the same time understanding that it is what needs to be done. 

I say all this from the perspective of someone who has campaigned against nuclear weapons all of my political life.  I truly believe that Britain, and indeed the rest of the world, would be better off without destructive nuclear  capability.

Having said that,  I also believe governments have to be realistic about the extent and reach of nuclear proliferation across the globe and put forward sensible policies for damage limitation. It is inevitable that, as an increasing number of scientists gain nuclear knowledge, more countries will have the opportunity to develop nuclear capability.

As we know, several countries, not all of them stable democracies,  actually do have nuclear weapons.  Pakistan is a case in point.  It is also highly probable that Israel has them. The situation regarding Israel obviously has to be taken into account in putting forward  any policy on Iran . 

The EU imposition of sanctions against Iran seems a desperate last push to stop the inevitable.

For all our sakes the EU  needs accept the reality of the international situation rather than undertaking measures which could potentially  alienate dangerous regimes across the world.

Tories Try to Play the Blame Game

Labour Party

The current government cannot continue to blame poor economic performance on the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. 

That was the central argument in a great article in today’s Guardian by Larry Elliott.  You can read it by following the link here.

There are two things that strike me about the assertion that Britain’s economic fortunes are being so disastrously affected by problems on the continent.  Firstly, it is a very convenient excuse.  It’s not the first time I’ve said that the Conservative led coalition are leading the charge on these cuts because of their ideology, not through a considered view of what would be best for the British economy.  The fact that things are so close to the brink in Europe provides a very convenient distraction from quite how damaging the policies of Osborne and Cameron are. 

Secondly, if that is what they genuinely believe, I don’t think it’s entirely unreasonable to expect them to do something about it.  Sadly, they seem rather incapable.  It’s very illuminating to see today at the crisis summit, Sarkozy reportedly lambasted Cameron for trying to “tell us what to do”, allegedly saying that he was “sick” of Mr Cameron’s criticism.  On a day where Cameron’s own party are forcing a vote in the Commons on whether or not we should have a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union, he can’t be all that surprised to find himself rebuffed by his fellow European heads of government.

David Cameron is right to say that the Eurozone crisis matters to Britain, as they remain our largest trading partner.  But the difficulties in Europe are no excuse for the lacklustre recovery the UK has been experiencing in the last two years.

I also wanted to briefly mention William Hague’s comments on the House of Commons vote today.  In a quite extraordinary statement Hague said that the government couldn’t support the motion because ‘it wasn’t in either governing parties’ manifesto’.  The bare faced hypocrisy of that statement would be amusing if weren’t so infuriating.  I’m glad the Conservatives aren’t supporting the motion, but it would have nice if they could have used that kind of thinking when proposing changes to the NHS or raising top-up fees.

Anyway, the UK economy remains in dire straits and unemployment continues to rise.  A major step towards averting an even worse crisis in the Eurozone may or may not be taken this week.  What is certain is that the Tory led coalition is either unwilling or unable to do anything about either problem.