Tories in a muddle on Europe (plus ça change)

Tory leader David Cameron found himself on slippery terrain today when giving his monthly press conference to journalists. The question repeatedly asked was straightforward enough: the Tories have committed to holding a referendum on the EU reform treaty – will that commitment hold true if the treaty is ratified, and they should find themselves in government?

Mr Cameron’s answer? He had none, pleading the politician’s equivalent of the Fifth Amendment – that he won’t answer hypothetical questions. Here’s how the BBC’s Nick Robinson described Dave’s defence:

What do we want? Power to the people. When do we want it? Now but, er, not necessarily in the future… because that’s a hypothetical question. That, in summary, was David Cameron’s answer to repeated questioning at his news conference this morning.

Why the refusal to be drawn, you may ask. After all, when Jeremy Hunt, a Tory shadow cabinet member, was asked by Jonathan Dimbleby on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions last Friday, “Will the Conservative Party offer a retrospective referendum to approve or disapprove this particular treaty?” Mr Hunt’s answer was unequivocal: “Absolutely.”

So why has Dave come over all coy? Adam Boulton’s blog tells us why:

… the Conservative leader was repeatedly pressed to commit himself to a public vote even if the new treaty is ratified. That would mean repealing an existing treaty – a defacto renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU. This would doubtless delight some on the Tory right, but DC knows it would be crazy politics.

But for how long can Dave paper over the cracks in his party’s policy on Europe? While he tries to play safe and steer a mid-course, his party is constantly urging him to lurch starboard. As Steve Richards wrote in today’s Independent:

I recall the frenzy among some Conservatives in the build-up to the Amsterdam Treaty. It was so intense that a pathetic John Major pleaded with them during the 1997 election not to “tie my hands” in advance of the summit. Consequently, Tony Blair signed up to Amsterdam and the fuss soon subsided. The fuss will subside over this treaty by the time of the election. Yet it will not have done so in the minds of some Tory MPs. That is why Mr Cameron should be worried as he dances in apparent joyful harmony with voters and Rupert Murdoch.

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  • Bonkalot Jones 23rd Oct '07 - 9:42pm

    I now understand why the Liberals are so pro-European. They realise that they will never be in a majority in Westminster, and that even if PR were introduced nationally they would still end up in the same tizz they did at the Welsh Assembly.

    But if enough powers can be transferred to Brussels they can hope to join a loose alliance of muddle-headed centre-right parties to the extent where they might have a bit of influence over British laws, albeit only after it has been through the wringer of the European Commission..

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Oct '07 - 9:46pm

    The problem with the Conservatives over the EU is that they claim to be in favour of the EU, yet rhetorically they are against. The Tories constantly tell us at every opportunity that the EU is institutionally absurd. They lie, they are corrupt, they conspire against UK interests.
    In fact they go further and say we should rebuild the transatlantic alliance, although they themselve were bitten by their retrospective “opposition” to the war in Iraq.
    I wonder how many would prefer us to have a closer relationship with a failed neo-Conservative regime as an add-on to unravelling our relationship to the EU?

  • Letters From A Tory 24th Oct '07 - 7:27am

    He obviously wants to hold off making that kind of decision as long as possible, but it will be hard to hold off much longer. David Cameron needs to spell out exactly how he sees the UK’s relationship with the EU, be it as a full member or otherwise.

  • passing tory 24th Oct '07 - 11:16am

    It strikes me as though Cameron’s position is extremely realistic. He has made it extremely clear that he sees the UK’s future as part of the EU and promising a referendum after the treaty has been ratified would put this in jeopardy.

    Equally well, it appears as though he sees the enormous problems with the way that the EU has developed and feels that the new constitution risks institutionalising these rather than addressing them.

    One of the Lib Dem arguments seems for Europe seems to be that we should be influencing the way that Europe does things. However, given how prescriptive the EU is (and lacking any significant democratic accountability), it strikes me that there is a far greater danger other people dictating the way that British people live their lives than we have on influencing anything that goes on in Brussels.

    And all this assumes that harmonising ways of life over a large geographic area is actually a good thing. I thought the Lib Dems were into localism so should be against large, central organisations (let alone ones with poor democratic accountability like the EU).

  • Grammar Police 24th Oct '07 - 1:36pm

    As we engaged in debate before, Passing Tory; Lib Dems are in favour of decisions being made at the *appropriate* level of government – this will usually mean the lowest level possible, but there are areas where a supra-national approach is what is needed. Unlike the Tories, we don’t think that everything the EU does is automatically bad (and we don’t feel the need to stoke up mildly xenophobic sentiments at every available opportunity either)

  • passing tory 24th Oct '07 - 2:18pm

    That’s a cute argument, Grammar police but it doesn’t really stack up with reality. You imply that most decisions should be made at a local level. So, in that case, do you agree with the majority of the legislation passed in Westminster originating from Brussels?

    And do “the Tories” think that everything that comes from Brussels is automatically bad”? I am sure that there are some that so, but the majority do not; there is a huge difference between saying something is inherrantly bad (which is what you are asserting Tories believe) and that something is not working the way that it should (which is much closer to the actual position).

    Of course, it plays well to your target audience to portray the Tories as bad, and it is undrealistic to expect reality to get in the way of a little bit of realpolitik.

  • Grammar Police 24th Oct '07 - 2:43pm

    The only thing that doesn’t “stack up with reality” is your argument here.
    Decisions should be made at the appropriate level – whether that’s local, national or supra-national. I’m not sure how your random euro-myth undermines my belief in that.
    I have no problems with EU directives that give national governments the ability to frame them in ways that fit with the national legal system, providing it was appropriate to make a directive on that subject in the first place.

    If you believe that something is not working in the way it should, then why is it wrong to assert that you need to change it from within (as the Liberal Democrats do)? The Tory position is often broadly anti-EU with a significant number of members and MPs demanding a withdrawal from the Union (I actually tried to find Conservative EU policy on their website, but there aren’t actually *any* policies on there). That to me suggests they believe the EU is inherently bad.

    You say ” . . . it plays well to your target audience to portray the Tories as bad, and it is undrealistic to expect reality to get in the way of a little bit of realpolitik.”

    Well, if opinion polls are to be believed, then a significant amount of the population would support a withdrawal – so by asserting that the Tories are currently anti-EU isn’t exactly saying they’re bad. Just wrong. I know you’d like to portray all Lib Dems as Tory-hating fabricators – but then again, why should I expect the reality to get in the way of your politicking!?

  • passing tory 24th Oct '07 - 2:47pm


    Do you have a ref for that Hansard study? Quite a few websites and misc journos quote a figure ~50% but I will certainly dig out where it originates from [although, it is unlikely to be Barroso fan-zine]

  • Grammar Police 24th Oct '07 - 3:32pm

    Coming at it from the other direction; there are about 3-4000 SIs made each year, 50-100 Acts (not to mention ASPs, a several hundred SSIs and Welsh statutory instruments and anything in NI) – and so 9% would be around 400-500 Directives/Regulations a year that would apply to the UK

  • Grammar Police 24th Oct '07 - 3:33pm

    Why is there never a copy of Halsbury’s Statutes EC Legislation Implementator around when you need one – you could check how many directives made a year . . .

  • passing tory 24th Oct '07 - 3:41pm

    Always a pleasure debating with you, Grammar police.

    About changing the EU. Well, I suppose I should ask what you would like to change first and then gauge the liklihood of being able to achieve that without kicking up a bit of fuss somewhere a long the way.

    There is nothing wrong with asserting that you want to change the system from within.
    You don’t have to read very far between Cameron’s lines to see this is what he believes, and this is what I would advocate too. The Lib Dem position strikes me as much closer to “it’s good, everything is hunky-dory”, a line which is not necessarily the best way to achieve the changes that are required (unless, of course, you don’t think any major changes are required).

    I think you also have to define anti-EU better. Do I support the concept of European states working together? Yes. Do I think that the way that the EU as currently set up is a sensible way of doing this well? No. Am I anti-EU? Well, that depends on what you mean by the phrase (which I have no way of knowing).

    Where have a generalised about LibDems hating Tories? I would be very surprised if I have because I am not a fan of generalisations of that kind. I can state categorically that the majority of LibDems activists that I have encountered have expressed anti-Tory views using distasteful language (as did you when you ventured from a debate on EU to talk about “stok[ing] up mildly xenophobic sentiments at every available opportunity”) but that still leaves many who try to debate issues without straying into party politics.

    And yes, I do stray into party lines when goaded (it would be a bit rude just to stand like a pudding and be a sitting target for abuse) but I find it far more constructive to stick to the issues. Particularly with those who do not share my views.

    To quote Richard Feynman: “We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.”

  • Grammar Police 24th Oct '07 - 3:57pm

    Passing Tory, I think I probably should apologise on the “hating Tories” point, I think that was another Tory poster (Bonkalot possibly?) who was posting at the same time as you and I on another Lib Dem voice discussion. That mis-rememberance was coupled with your suggestion that I was deliberately trying to portray the Tories as bad and as adopting a position I knew to be not the case. My experience of Tory activists on the subject of the EU (and obviously a common one from what you suggest Lib Dems say to you) is that they often have slightly distasteful views on the EU – often mildly xenophobic – and that is why I use such language. I also have found Tory spokesmen as represented in the press often doing the same.

    On the substantive EU, I personally think a huge thing to change is the CAP – and I think the possibility of that happening is *there*.

    As to Lib Dems’desire to change the EU. The policy can be found here:
    I can’t find a Tory policy.

  • passing tory 24th Oct '07 - 4:33pm

    Apology accepted.

    On the LibDem policy papers, maybe you could just clarify the precidence for me. There is a 2007 consultation paper that poses questions (e.g. “Is the EU sufficiently legitimate, capable and democratic?”) rather than details polices and a 2005 policy brief. Does that mean that the Lib Dem policy is currently under reconsideration?

    I don’t know what the current Tory position is; I imagine that we are at more or less the same point as you guys appear to be given that we are getting near the end of a policy review process. But if I were a betting man I would place my money on a final position along the familiar “in Europe but not run by Europe” lines.

    In fact, the LibDem paper is very cunningly worded so as to completely finesse the main problem: stating that “We remain
    however determined that no action should be taken at that level which can better
    be dealt with at the national or local level, and insistent on the importance of
    democratic accountability at all levels.” begs the question of whether this is actually the case (or, alternatively, whether this ever will be the case within the EU as currently constituted.)

    I too can see the case for inter-national cooperation, especially where control of finite resources are concerned. But the current vision of many in Brussels extends way beyond this. To take a well-cited example – weights and measures. Now, as a scientist I think that SI units make sense and would be all for encouraging everyone to use them. But FORCING people to use them? Why? How can you square this with an organisation that promotes liberal values? After all, for efficiency we should all speak one language so why not force that on people too [which, lest you get the wrong end of the stick, I absolutely would NOT condone].

  • Grammar Police 24th Oct '07 - 4:46pm

    On the policy: The policy is as it is – the 2007 paper may mean a review is in process, but that will not result in a change to policy unless such is passed by conference. All parties review policy, we’d complain if we didn’t. My point about the Tories is that they don’t public any policy, even existing policy or consultation papers etc on their website. As you say, you don’t know what the current Tory position is. Who does? All we know is that a significant number of parliamentarians and members want out of the EU.

    I’m interested in whether you think the EU makes bad laws because of the way it is constituted, or whether it makes bad laws because of the actual decision-makers (commissioners, ministers, MEPs)?

  • passing tory 24th Oct '07 - 5:39pm

    I think that the way in which the EU is consitututed facilitates a very centralised system where there is a tendency to look to “harmonise” as many areas as possible rather than look to try to distribute power whenever possible. Of course, this is a very common process when you a let a whole lot of civil servants loose at a problem; they have something of a vested interest in keeping power as close to themselves as possible.

    The fact that the Commission is essentially unaccountable electorally does not help matters at all. Many people (and not just those with a penchant for blue rossettes) feel that they have no comeback whatsoever against legislation they disagree with that originates in Brussels, and they are largely correct.

    I was also reading today (although haven’t had a chance to verify) that the way that the government gets approval from Westminster before negotiating at Council has been changing (apparently they have been increasingly using an opt-out that allows them not to consult Parliament), although this is a problem of NuLab control-freakery rather than anything that can be blamed on the EU.

  • passing tory 24th Oct '07 - 6:00pm

    Incidentally, I see the following story is doing the rounds:

    Now, while this doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of the EU (although some commentators are suggesting otherwise) it does show that people very close to the centre of the EU project have views which are, shall we say, not particularly liberal (as most people would understand the term).

  • The conversation around 10,11, 12 sent me off on one of those wonderful things we couldn’t do before the internet. I’ve been to all sorts of nooks and crannies. I couldn’t find the 9% but i did find the 50%. It is at p26 of the following document and is evidence from the CBI

  • passing tory 24th Oct '07 - 6:55pm

    That looks like a nice paper, but it begs the question of where Digby Jones got the figure from (and while I would hope he would be the sort of guy to check his figures carefully you can never be too certain).

    I imagine that the difference between 9% and 50% will hinge on some definition of what counts as legislation and which different people have adjusted slightly to get figures that sound better to them. Without primary references for both figures it is going to be hard to suss out.

    The 50% figure certainly seems to have been quoted far more widely than the 9% (but maybe the Eurosceptics are just a more vocal bunch 🙂

  • Grammar Police 24th Oct '07 - 7:00pm

    I’m not sure what I think about having an elected Commission.

    The power to initiate legislation largely resides with the Commission currently, but the legislation must be within the EU’s competence as set out in the Treaties which the Member States negotiate – so they can’t legislate on whatever they want.

    The Council can amend and says “yay” or “nay” to whether the legislation is passed rather like our Parliament (except that unlike Parliament the Commission can’t force stuff through the Council and there’s no whipping – and the Council, as representative of the Member States has *a* democratic mandate – the Commission does not). The Parliament can delay, and block and the Council and Commission are forced to compromise with it in order to get stuff through, meaning that’s how it influences EU legislation. It represents the people of the EU as a demos.

    In contrast to this, let’s imagine an elected Commission with a democratic mandate to enact laws at EU level – wouldn’t this actually be more inclined to centralise and policy creep!? I’m not arguing against democracy here, I’d just rather see the Parliament stronger and the Council maintain its position, as opposed to create a supra-Government in the Commission . . .

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