David Cameron’s EU deal is no deal at all. It amounts to minor tinkering, presentational puff, and achieves little in terms of the subsidiarity-sovereignty objectives which the Conservative Party set out in their 2015 General Election Manifesto. “Our commitment to you,” they pledged: “Reclaim power from Brussels.”
But there is no “emergency brake” on immigration, unless the European Commission consents to apply it. There is no “red card” on EU legislative proposals, unless 14 other EU heads of state agree to play it. There is no “fundamental reform” on migrant welfare; it will be graduated over four years and supplemented by tax credits. And there is no legally enforceable “opt-out” from “ever closer union”: the Treaty of Rome remains foundational and preeminent.
There is, apparently, a cast-iron guarantee from the President of the European Council that these provisions will be incorporated into a future treaty, but John Major learned the hard way that EU assurances of change and pledges of progress may easily be forgotten. It is exactly 20 years ago that the British Government decided to ’empty chair’ all EU meetings, veto all decisions and block all proceedings in protest at a catalogue of broken promises over easing the EU-wide ban on British beef in the wake of the BSE crisis (that is Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or ‘mad cow disease’).
Announcing the draconian measures to Parliament, Mr Major said that “despite prior assurances of support” there had been “a wilful disregard of Britain’s interests, and, in some cases, a breach of faith”. Driven to distraction, there was absolutely no alternative. He explained:
This is not how I like to do business within Europe but I see no alternative. We cannot continue business as usual within Europe when we are faced with this clear disregard by some of our partners of reason, common sense and Britain’s national interests. We continue to want to make progress through negotiation. But if this is not possible, we are bound to use the legal avenues open to us.
And so we come to another BSE (this one Britain Stronger in Europe), which is undoubtedly the Prime Minister’s conviction, just as it was Ted Heath’s (and, indeed, that of every prime minister since – at least while in office). But the fundamental deception by which Heath secured victory in the 1975 referendum will not be tolerated in 2017. He placed before the British people a benign vision of an economic community – a wealth-creating trade bloc – which would involve “no erosion of essential national sovereignty”. Many warned of the ultimate political trajectory of “ever closer union”, but the British Establishment was united on the teleology of the matter: the EEC was Britain’s ‘destiny’, and no-one listened to the original band of loonies, cranks and political gadflies.
And now David Cameron places before the British people a vision of a reformed EU – a wealth-creating trade bloc – which will henceforth involve the UK in nothing that our politicians do not deem to be in the national interest. We will retain the pound and be exempt from “ever closer union”. We have apparently clawed back our “essential national sovereignty”, or so we are being led to believe. This new EU deal has yet to be pored over and agreed by the other 27 EU member states, but this is basically it: the European Commission determines when the “emergency brake” may be applied; we need the support of 14 other heads of state before we can play the “red card”; there is no subsidiarity in terms of powers or competences reclaimed, and EU law remains supreme.
Sorry, Prime Minister, but this is Esau’s bargain. Our historic rights, customs, traditions and freedoms will not be sold again for a vile mess of pottage. In 1996, our EU overlords were not so easily persuaded that we had eradicated Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy from our land, or that all our grass-fed herds were BSE-free. And now, in 2016, it falls to discerning truth-tellers, incisive communicators and latter-day loonies, cranks and political gadflies to explain why ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ is nothing but rhetorical sophistry and political duplicity. We will not cease from mental fight, nor shall our swords sleep in our hands, ’til we have stamped out BSE from England’s green and pleasant land.