Cameron lowers renegotiation expectations in the hope of selling a paltry change as a triumph

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Ministers have bathetically disclosed four things they are negotiating for in their talks with the EU. Actually, I’m not sure “negotiating” is the right word, since all they aim to do is confirm the present arrangements.

First, the Government wants a form of double-majority voting in certain fields, requiring majorities from both Euro and non-Euro states. Second, a red card system allowing national parliaments to block Commission proposals. Third, an opt-out from the words (just the words) “ever-closer union”. Fourth, an explicit statement that the EU has more than one currency.

Seriously? That’s it? How about an explicit statement that Caracas is the capital of Venezuela? How many more ways of dressing up the status quo can you find?

The way to protect the interests of the City of London is not to change the voting system; it’s to opt out of the damaging and sometimes downright malevolent directives that have been aimed at our financial services industry over the past five years – regularly opposed by the UK, regularly challenged in court, and almost always enacted anyway.

The red card system, far from protecting parliamentary sovereignty, actually makes things worse by formalising the status of the 28 national legislatures as sub-units within a federation (see here for the full argument).

Opting out of the phrase “ever-closer union” makes no difference as long as EU law has primacy over British law, and the ultimate arbiter of European law remains the ultra-integrationist European Court of Justice.

As for declaring that the EU has more than one currency, we might as usefully declare that the EU has more than one language. Et alors?

No serious analyst thinks these changes amount to anything. On his TV show on Sunday, the staunchly pro-EU Andrew Marr put it to Ken Clarke that they were “weak as water”; Clarke didn’t demur.

One or two Europhile (or lazy) journalists have wondered whether the EU will “accept” these “demands”. But most recognise that, when nothing is being demanded, the question of acceptance doesn’t really arise.

Ah, some readers will say, Hannan and the Eurosceptics are just trying to raise the bar impossibly high. Actually, we’re not. Our key aims – the supremacy of UK law on our own soil, more freedom to strike bilateral trade deals with non-EU states and the right to determine who can settle on our territory – are remarkably moderate. Nothing would make me happier than for the PM to come back from Brussels with a deal that we could support.

David Cameron was until recently promising significant and, if necessary, unilateral repatriations of power from the EU. Not just employment and social policy. Not just human rights. The PM said he wanted to restore the independence of our common law system:

“We will prevent EU judges gaining steadily greater control over our criminal justice system by negotiating an arrangement which would protect it. That will mean limiting the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over criminal law to its pre-Lisbon level, and ensuring that only British authorities can initiate criminal investigations in Britain.”

Now I like David Cameron: I voted for him as party leader and, other than on the EU, I think he’s doing a cracking job as PM. It’s thanks to him that we’re getting the referendum at all. Still, there is no way to interpret this new line other than as an abject climbdown from his previous position. So what is going on?

Actually, I can answer that question with some certainty. David Cameron is deliberately lowering expectations so that even the paltriest change can be sold as an unexpected triumph. How can I be so sure? Because his strategy was unintentionally leaked when Andrew Lansley spoke to a group of pro-EU lobbyists over the summer, only for his remarks to be summarised in writing for the participants. “Public expectations from renegotiation need to be realistic (and be downplayed at the outset) and then be exceeded,” he said, going on to promise a bogus row with France after the February summit.

It remains to be seen whether Britain will go ahead with the sham fight (probably over tax). The fact of the leak may force ministers to pick a battle with a different country. But the ludicrous downplaying of expectations is already taking place.

How precisely will these meagre expectations be exceeded? Here’s my guess. The one thing we know is that the Eurozone states have accepted, in principle, the need for further fiscal and political integration. We know it because they adopted the fiscal compact; and we know it because their leaders keep confirming as much.

If I’m right, their integration will be accompanied by a statement to the effect that the countries not taking part now have a different status. They might even try to get away with calling it “associate membership”.

But, again, nothing will actually have changed. The idea of Britain opting out of the non-economic aspects of EU membership is hugely attractive, but there is no sign that we are asking for it. If we’re planning to withdraw from common policies on foreign affairs, agriculture, fisheries, employment law, environmental regulation, defence, immigration and criminal justice, we’re not telling the other members.

David Owen, whom no one could call an extremist, has written a thoughtful and measured book about a genuinely different deal might work. He proposes a broad European market, covering EFTA states and Turkey as well as EU members, within which the Eurozone countries could establish a political as well as a monetary union.

To repeat, most Eurosceptics would settle for such an option. But if British officials were pursuing it, they would be in contact now with their Danish, Swedish and EFTA counterparts. As far as anyone can tell, they aren’t.

As long as Sir Humphrey in Brussels and Jim Hacker in Westminster believe that they can win a referendum with only minor changes, that’s all they’ll ask for. The only way to inspire them to greater radicalism is to start campaigning to leave. If the polls swing far enough our way, and a David-Owen-type deal follows, Brexit will become unnecessary. As we Old Brussels Hands say, c’est logique.