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Lisbon: Does Dave have a Plan B

October 31st, 2009

 

David Herdson assesses some of the options?

Nearly eight years after the Laeken Summit kickstarted the process, there’s a good chance that the final hurdles to ratification of the Lisbon Treaty could be overcome next week, leading to the treaty coming into force on December 1. In Britain, that will throw the spotlight onto the Tories, whose policy on Lisbon will expire with the completion of the ratification process.

The current policy of a referendum is one which is widely supported by Conservatives, who are overwhelmingly opposed to the introduction and therefore found both the means and the ends of such a process attractive.

    Given the emotion that the European question can raise the Tories the replacement policy remains one of the more obvious known unknowns that could upset the current expectation of a Conservative outright win in May

We know that one policy will be to introduce legislation to put future treaties to a popular vote but that’s not much of a headline grabber. What then are the options open to Cameron and Hague to set the agenda and what effect might they have if introduced?

Referendum 1 – In or Out When Lisbon was still under discussion, the Lib Dems put this forward as an alternative to a specific Lisbon vote. Proponents then suggested that it would renew the popular mandate for the EU as it is now; in reality, it’s more likely that many voters would feel cheated at not having some middle option. In addition, it would unite the Lib Dems and Labour, divide the Tories and give UKIP a tremendous boost (which Clegg of course knew when he proposed it). The Conservatives would be mad to go for it.

Referendum 2 – A Lisbon Proxy The Lisbon referendum was meant to derail ratification and to establish a precedent. In a wider sense however, it would also have set a benchmark of public scepticism towards the EU which the government could have used in future negotiations. That could also be achieved by a referendum on (for example) entry into the Euro. Additionally, that topic could cause internal difficulties for Labour and the Lib Dems whereas the Conservatives would be close to wholly united.

However, such a policy runs the risk of being too clever by half. Unlike Lisbon, it would be difficult to explain to voters why a vote was being proposed on something the government didn’t want. UKIP would ask why the referendum wasn’t the ‘In or Out’ option. Critics would also complain about the cost, that it was a distraction and that it proved their points about the Tories’ obsession about Europe. There’s also the outside chance that the Yes side might win. All in all, it shouldn’t happen.

The Positive Vision This option accepts that the Lisbon debate is over and lost and aims to grab hold of where the EU goes next. In it, Cameron would have to set out a vision of what the Conservatives would like to see the EU doing (and not doing), and challenge the people of Europe to make it happen. It would be a direct appeal over the European establishment, rejecting their integrationist agenda and arguing for improved rather than increased activity.

For effect, it would need to be backed up by specific proposals e.g. to repeal named policies, directives and regulations; to cut the EU budget. It’s certainly something the Conservatives could rally around and for which there’d be support beyond the party and outside the country. Sceptics would argue that it would never be successful and if that proved to be the case, Cameron would be accused of being naïve.

Demand the rebate back Thatcher won it; Blair gave it back. It’s an appealing argument for the Conservatives to put to the British people. However, beyond that lies trouble. If the EU members agree, substantial concessions would be needed in return, especially in terms of cooperation; if it failed, not only would that be damaging to those involved but it would require yet another policy shift. In addition, the British contribution is a significant lever available to the government in negotiations: money is power.

Aim to Negotiate more opt-outs Other countries are winning additional opt-outs, though that’s easier when most EU leaders are desperate to get Lisbon in as soon as possible and will concede much to achieve it. Negotiating without such a prize on offer will be harder, especially if those opt-outs (e.g. on the Social Chapter), potentially give the UK a competitive advantage. Such a policy would reinforce Britain’s semi-detached status from the EU and would make it harder to control its direction. Even so, that might be considered a price worth if the concessions are big enough.

Propose Democracy for the EU Again, accept that Lisbon is a done deal but argue that much of the scepticism towards the EU derives from the remoteness of the institutions and the lack of control people have over them. A proposal to elect the Commission from and by the Parliament, and elect the Council President directly across the entire EU would massively increase accountability. Such a proposal would of course be hated by both Eurocrats and heads of government on one side (because of their loss of control), and Eurosceptics on the other (because of the increased legitimacy, and hence power, it would bring). For that reason, it would be a high-risk policy but if the dangers could be avoided, could prove a useful bargaining chip.

There are of course other possible options and some, though not all, of those above are mutually exclusive. How Cameron plays it will be one of his bigger tests over the coming months. If he gets it right, it will look ever more like he has the keys to Number Ten in his pocket; if not, it’s very much game back on again.

  • First President of the EU Council Betting
    PaddyPower: Blair 7/4: Balkenende 11/4: Junker 9/2.
    Ladbrokes: Blair 9/4: Balkenende 11/4: Junker 5/1.
    Victor Chandler: Blair 2/1: Balkenende 3/1: Junker 5/1.
  • David Herdson