EU Referendum

Cameron aims low in EU negotiation despite UK’s favourable hand

The Prime Minister demonstrated his inner lack of confidence in British strengths, in spite of boasts

Britain’s relationship with the European Union varies according to the self-confidence of the two parties. It started with an excess of British arrogance.

When the EU began life as the Common Market in 1957, Britain was asked to become a founder member alongside France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. We refused. We thought we were still a great power compared to our continental neighbours, which had each suffered grievous military defeats during the Second World War. Illustrative of British attitudes at the time were the remarks of a Foreign Office minister, Anthony Nutting. He said that France would not be able “to play the role of more than a drifting has-been in world politics” and that the “most popular move in Europe would be for us to move in and run the show”.

But before many years had passed, British lost her self-confidence. This was to bring humiliation upon us. In the 1960s, just as the British economy was beginning to perform poorly, with one sterling crisis after another, the six countries of the Common Market started to forge ahead.

The future Labour leader, Harold Wilson, noted “the spectacular release of self-confidence and energy which has followed the establishment of the Community”. Labour MP Fred Mulley stated that it was “an overwhelming British interest that we should become closely associated with the Common Market. The first and most compelling reason is the dynamic expansion one finds today in Europe”. Edward Heath, the Prime Minister who finally took us into Europe, told the House of Commons, that what we now see opposite to us on the mainland of Europe is “a large group comparable in size only to the United States and the Soviet Union, and as its economic power increases, so will its political influence”.

So the British political establishment of  the day concluded that we had to join.

We first applied in 1963. The French President, General de Gaulle, said no. Britain tried again in 1967. Again, President de Gaulle vetoed our application. Our loss of self-confidence had inexorably led us to becoming supplicants. Britain finally gained admittance at the third time of asking in 1973.

Now, 40 years later, the situation is completely reversed. The European Union, as represented by its bureaucracy in Brussels, has become demoralised while Britain has become more self-confident. Remember that European bureaucrats are not people just doing a job because it is available and pays the bills. “We didn’t come here by chance,” they often say. It’s a sense of being on a mission that sustains them. On Tuesday, however, Le Monde carried a long piece that described “the end of illusions”.

The French newspaper reported that at Brussels, the Europhiles “no longer hide their fear that the European Union will break up”. What they see as particularly serious is the way the member states are pulling away from each other – the west from the east, the north from the south. They describe 2015 as an annus horribilis and expect 2016 to be just as bad. One diplomat said he had “never before lived through such an absence of solidarity between European countries”.

What frightens the true believers most is the sheer unpopularity of ‘their’ EU. A Belgian member of the European Parliament since 1984, Gérard Deprez, told Le Monde that Europe had been “the great affair of my life” but now, and for the first time, he was worried: “I don’t see the dynamic that will lead us out of this crisis.”

Britain’s self-confidence is based on superior economic performance. Growth rates in the UK are well above the EU average. The unemployment rate in the eurozone is expected to 10.6 per cent this year – almost twice the likely British rate of 5.4 per cent.

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This simultaneous increase in British self-confidence on the one hand, and European loss of nerve on the other, provided favourable conditions for the Prime Minister’s EU negotiation. The context turns out to have been ideal for using one of the key techniques of successful negotiation: placing an almost embarrassingly high opening demand that, even if rejected, starts the bargaining at a higher level. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether Mr Cameron and his advisers took into account the favourable dynamics.

Instead the Prime Minister opened with low bids in the hope that at least something would be obtained. In 2009, Mr Cameron promised to negotiate “a complete opt-out” from the Charter of Fundamental Rights. No such proposals were ever put forward. In the same year, he said he would “limit… the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over criminal law”. Nothing has happened since – and nor has his desire to stop EU migrants coming to the UK without a job offer been put forward during the current negotiations.

The ‘leavers’ believe Britain could withdraw from the EU and yet obtain a free trade deal at least as good as the sort of arrangements that Norway and Switzerland have, if not better. The difference is self-confidence, the secret ingredient in Britain’s relationship with Europe.

You either have it or you don’t. Mr Cameron doesn’t. His opponents do.



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