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EU politics: losing the game

Richard North, 04/12/2012  


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In the wake of Rodney Leach's initiative yesterday, to have Boris Johnson today coming up with virtually the same agenda is not a coincidence.

This is part of the three-legged europhile strategy that we saw emerging last month as an antidote to euroscepticism and the "out" movement. We can call this the "Reform-Renegotiate-Scare" (RRS) strategy.

Johnson, like Leach, is running the Tory-inspired "renegotiate" leg, speaking at a Thomson Reuters "Newsmaker" event in London. He is another one pretending that Britain can renegotiate a relationship with the EU, this time with the idea that we could cut back our involvement to "the single market only".

Despite being billed as something new, though, this was basically a re-run of David Cameron's "new settlement" with the EU, enunciated last July.

But now we have Johnson, in an embarrassingly clumsy speech assuming the mantle of a "moderate eurosceptic, telling us: "The euro is a calamitous project," then offering the usual layer of fantasy. He suggests that, "We should use the opportunity of the Treaty changes - perhaps over the banking union - to convene an intergovernmental conference in which we bring Britain's membership in line with what people want".

"Boil it down to the single market", he adds. "That is a renegotiated Treaty we could and should put to the vote of the British people". Thus, he says, "It is high time that we had a referendum, and it would be a very simple question. Do you want to stay in the EU single market - yes or no?"

In media questions after his address, he was asked if he would campaign to keep Britain within the European Union if it renegotiated its treaty to be based around the single market. Johnson, the great europhile, easily agreed that he would.

Acknowledging that other EU member states might be unwilling to renegotiate a special relationship for Britain, he then said: "The choice is going to be staying in on our terms, or getting out".

However, anyone looking for any honesty or realism here is likely to be disappointed. There is an agenda at work, but it has more to do with the general election than our "relationship" with the European Union. And one can now see the election strategy beginning to take shape.

The offer of "renegotiation" will be put on the table, with an absolute reassurance that "our partners want us there" and will be prepared to sit at a table and talk. Then we get the "referendum" offer, which is not an "in/out" choice, but a variation based on "do you want us to renegotiate?"  Possibly, as Johnson seems to indicate, we get a choice between "Europe-lite" and the status quo.

A permissory referendum, asking for approval to renegotiate, will create serious problems for real eurosceptics. They can hardly oppose the idea of renegotiation if the alternative is "no" and that answer is taken to favour the status quo. Thus, they have to go for the "yes" option and fall in behind the renegotiation offer - or boycott the referendum.

As it stands now, this ploy safely kicks the can down the road. Furthermore, it gives David Cameron the safety net of a referendum promise, which he can use to repair his tarnished image on "Europe" and also "park" the EU question until after the election.

The strategy is diabolical in its simplicity and cleverness. Most people – not knowing any different – will buy the idea of a renegotiation, leaving hard core "outers" on the fringes. They can continue to warn that renegotiation is not an option without committing to leave, but they will be drowned out by this deeply dishonest campaign.

Needless to say, the UKIP option of an immediate withdrawal, with an instant repeal of the ECA, is equally unrealistic. And given the hard choice of immediate withdrawal or the soft option of renegotiation, most people will opt for the latter.

That much comes over from the Johnson's press session. Summarising his "case", he stated that there were "three views on Europe": the get-outers, those in favour of the status quo and those in favour of his "renegotiation" option.

In a rehearsal of the campaign to come, Johnson then asked his audience (mainly press) if anyone was in favour of getting out. No one was. What about lashing Britain to "this Procrustean nightmare" (i.e., the status quo), he asked. A few people were in favour. "And what about the Johnson option? This, we are told, "seems to get lots of support".

Of course, Johnson – as did Leach yesterday – takes care to avoid the question, "do you want to leave the EU and stay in the Single Market?" – the EEA option, negotiated via Article 50. No way do the europhiles want to entertain the "negotiate and leave" option. The debate must always be framed in terms of negotiate or leave.

Thus, anyone who has been following the debate on these pages will immediately see confirmation of our warning in July that UKIP stands to be completely outmanoeuvred. Farage might have charisma, but Johnson is easily his match – and if this snake-oil salesman sells "renegotiation" many will buy.

We are at risk of losing the game.

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