Months ago, the Tory Reform Group invited George Eustice MP to come and talk to one of our regular policy suppers about his new European policy group. Entirely by accident, I have to confess, the event was on Wednesday this week (by the way, if you want to receive information about future events, sign up to firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was like being a teenager again early this week, for all the wrong reasons – newspaper splashes like this. Depressing and pointless:
Nick wrote extensively on the vote itself last week. But there are some wider points. Firstly, the motion which was put down was not government policy – so of course the government was going to impose a three-line whip on it. In fact, I think this was short-sighted of them – in opposition, there was much talk of more free and one line votes on non-binding, committee stage or backbench motions. But allowing one for the first time on this would have sent a message (wrongly interpreted) to those who put it down.
Secondly, what did the motion actually seek to achieve? It was entirely non- specific – what do they want to renegotiate? Going into an argument without knowing what you want out of it is not going to get you far. Related to this is a point I’ve made before – simply complaining about the EU and principles of sovereignty will not make voters see it your way. Being specific, identifying a problem that actually bothers people and then linking it to the EU if that is actually the problem (as Douglas Carswell often does very effectively) is much more likely to work. But then again, that would require those demanding the vote to be specific – which they can’t be…
Because of my third point. They can’t be specific because no-one actuallyknows what they want to change. There are loads of mutterings about the Human Rights Act (not actually related to the European Union), or health and safety, or straight bananas or whatever. But so much of the time, these are spasms of grumpiness based on Daily Mail headlines, and not on fact. You need to prepare before you start making demands.
George on Wednesday made a point that hadn’t really articulated itself in my head before. In opposition, it’s very easy to rail simplistically against this or that. In government you have the chance to actually do something about it. But you need to be strategic. Beating the government on one vote (while it didn’t happen) wouldn’t have changed anything. There would still need to be all the preparation, investigation, drafting and strategising.
I confess that I find the whole EU debate deadly dull. But there are some principles I think we should apply to it. If we are serious about our free-market values, we should encourage a multi-speed Europe. By that, I mean that, beyond some fundamentals, if some countries want to sign up to some things but others don’t, then let them. For example, one area which is often mentioned for repatriation of powers is employment law. One attendee was horrified that Germany would have to maintain the EU regulations when we wouldn’t, and Germany would therefore feel that we had an unfair advantage. But surely the point is that if Germany felt that their implementation of the EU regulations was bad for Germany, they too could choose to withdraw from some of them.
Strangely, many of the EU’s principles externally are about competition. Internally however, it often seems to want to create a sort of collectivist blur of standardisation. Surely it should encourage political as well as economic competition?
My final point is this. The change to the rules of succession which was announced yesterday is not before time, but despite the dire warnings of trench warfare within the Commonwealth, it has been agreed swiftly, neatly and without much fuss. Because it was sensible, it was timely, and the participants were prepared. Lessons should be learnt.