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Miracle Merkel

17 March 2014 By Hugo Dixon

Angela Merkel’s visit to the UK last month seems to have worked wonders. Within three weeks of the German chancellor’s speech to the House of Commons and her private meetings with political leaders, the two most risky “Brexit” scenarios are now less likely.

First, the Labour opposition has virtually ruled out holding a referendum on Britain’s European Union membership if it wins power in 2015. Such a plebiscite might well have led to an Out vote given that, in such a scenario, the Tory party and press could have formed a united front opposing membership.

The second risky scenario was that David Cameron would win reelection and set “impossibilist” demands for how he wanted to reform Britain’s relationship with the EU. But he has just come out with a list of reforms which, while wishy-washy, are moderate. He has also said that, if he gets his way, he will campaign for an In vote – which means the people are less likely to vote Out.

The hardline eurosceptics in Cameron’s Conservative party won’t be impressed by his wish list. Nowhere does he list a series of powers – for example, on employment and social legislation – that he would like to repatriate from the EU to Britain. That would have been an unrealistic demand involving a complete rewrite of the EU’s treaties.

What Cameron does advocate is “powers flowing away from Brussels, not always to it.” This vague promise looks like something more minimal and achievable: that the EU should, in future, pay more attention to its principle of subsidiarity – something the Dutch government has summed up in the phrase “Europe if necessary, national when possible.”

Decentralisation on this model is part of the current zeitgeist across Europe as a response to rising euroscepticism. Fisheries policy has already been reformed along those lines.

Cameron might be able to argue that his goal has been met if some other EU laws, say the Working Time Directive, are modified to decentralise power. Big treaty changes, which would be impossible to negotiate, are probably not needed.

Other parts of Cameron’s agenda look equally mushy and, hence, equally achievable.

Take his pledge to achieve “free movement to take up work, not free benefits.” If he’d made a head-on attack on free movement of people, the rest of the EU would have dug its heels in. But the assault on so-called welfare tourism has support in other countries such as Germany – even though it is a rare phenomenon. One can imagine that, after some tweaks to the relevant laws, Cameron could declare victory.

True, the UK PM does say he wants to stop “vast migrations” when new countries join the EU. But that is not an issue for the next few years. The two big countries which might conceivably join, Turkey and Ukraine, won’t join until the next decade at least. So the decision on how long their people will have to wait before having free access to the EU labour market won’t be decided by the time Britain has its referendum.

On economics, Cameron doesn’t have much to say. But what he does advocate – more free trade, more single market and less red tape – is entirely sensible. It also fits with the competitiveness agenda that other EU members are already pushing – and the next EU Commission is expected to implement.

Cameron does have two potential hostages to fortune: his wish to let national parliaments work together to block unwanted EU laws; and his demand that the treaty-enshrined goal of “ever closer union” between the people of Europe doesn’t apply to Britain.

While these are reasonable proposals – and should be on Britain’s wish list if the EU’s treaties are reopened for negotiation – aren’t they impossible to achieve otherwise?

Well, maybe not.

There is already a provision allowing national parliaments to force the European Commission to think again about new laws. What about a solemn declaration by the Commission that, if more than half the parliaments object to a new law, it will back off?

As for “ever closer union,” perhaps this could be dealt with by mentioning that it doesn’t apply to the UK in some protocol inserted the next time there is a minor reform of the treaties.

In other words, Cameron has come up with a set of demands that seems reasonable enough for the ever-innovative EU fudge factory to be able to process.


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