You know something is wrong when John Redwood, Boris Johnson, the Murdoch press and the Mail are calling it a triumph.
Even on its own terms the December EU summit plumbs new depths of government mendacity and incompetence. Even if one accepts that the aims of Cameron were legitimate- sheltering the financial sector which finances his party, or defending the single market, he came home less than empty-handed.
By forfeiting the right to negotiate an EU Treaty at the very outset, the government ensured that the summit was a quadruple failure for Britain. First we will have no influence on the final form and content of the new intergovernmental treaty; if the UK had stayed in it could at every stage have fought its corner, paragraph by paragraph. Second, we have achieved an isolation so melancholic that even our most traditional ‘friends’ like the eurosceptic Czechs and the hard right Hungarians have abandoned us. Third, even our established reputation for diplomatic competence is undermined by the crass failure to prepare the ground, by springing a text on the institutions and the other member states at the last moment, and by rejecting out of hand the procedural compromise offered by European Council President Van Rompuy. Fourth it confirms the message to the Americans and others that doing business with Europe means working with Berlin, Paris and Brussels, not London. The business community may well draw the same lesson.
Cameron’s excuse that we reacted late because the Franco-German proposals were only tabled earlier in the week is doubly lame; a serious government might well have thought it best to take an initiative earlier rather than just reacting to proposals from others; and it has been clear for two months at least that some form of Treaty change was going to dominate this summit’s agenda.
As to our special pleading for the banks, financial services, hedge funds etc., nothing has changed. EU financial regulation is and will continue to be decided by qualified majority. There was no veto on that; there will be no veto- quite rightly because financial services regulation is part and parcel of internal market rules. The only thing that changes is that the 26 will now develop the habit of working together on the broad range of economic policy, and that the voice of the most economically liberal, free market, high finance-friendly member state will no longer be heard. One would have to be exceptionally naïve to imagine that the 26 will refrain from discussions about any aspect of EU economic and social legislation simply out of consideration for a government that has of its own free will boycotted their meetings.
Some hotheads, including the UK chancellor, appear to be threatening that the 26 will not be allowed to use the EU institutions for managing and policing their budgetary treaty. In fact the organisation of the Commission and its services is a matter fro the Commission president not for individual governments. The Commission often has work subcontracted to it which is not the business of every single member state. And the Legal Services are confident that the European Court of Justice could be given jurisdiction over the new Treaty, under its existing terms of reference. Britain would be even more ill-advised to pursue any attempt at sabotaging the compact agreed in December.
Even the last fall-back of the apologists for the British government- that this was necessary to buy off the eurosceptic Tory backbenchers- has been discredited before the end of the first weekend. The anti-Europeans in the Tory party have now had their first ‘victory’, and are already salivating for more. One third of the Tory backbenchers want the UK out of the EU, and will settle for nothing less. Cameron/Clegg appeasement will not satisfy them.
Liberal hand wringing has been exposed in all its impotence- Clegg’s immediate support for Cameron on Friday becoming licensed criticism in the space of twenty-four hours. The spectacle of a political party abandoning its only distinctive feature- its support for European integration- just to save those ministerial cars and a few of their parliamentary seats is a woeful one.
Ed Miliband was right straightaway to criticise the veto as a failure for Britain. He now needs to answer the question what Labour would have done differently.
In so doing he should look at the substance of the compact agreed by the 26. Because the tragedy is that the amateur dramatics of Cameron and the UK government have conveniently distracted attention from the shortcomings in the consecration of prolonged austerity which is the kernel of this new agreement.
Two elements needed to solve the crisis are absent; the financial firewall has been shored up a little but without any clear undertakings from the European Central Bank, which appears to have forgotten that its core task above all others must be to preserve the currency it administers. And, most importantly, growth- not merely no plan, but hardly warranting a mention at the summit. Without a plan for growth, social, industrial and infrastructure investment, there will be no sustainable strategy for tackling the debt. Cuts, retrenchment, austerity alone will not bring this crisis to end.
That should have been the distinctive position of the UK at the top table, which it now leaves so ignominiously.
To return to the canine metaphor, the Tories hanker after a biting, barking bulldog snapping at our European neighbours provided it morphs into a poodle when it comes to press proprietors and hedge fund managers. An absent bulldog, voiceless and deaf, will impress no-one.
Waterloo, December 12th 2011