Yesterday morning arch Europhile grandee Ken Clarke lobbed another grenade at his Eurosceptic parliamentary colleagues, accusing them of “gleeful defeatism” and of shifting the “goalposts”.
His criticism, from the pages of The Independent will, I suspect, be seen as unhelpful to the Conservative leadership. They will certainly not please those in No 10, or those charged with carrying out the plans to renegotiate our relationship with Europe who want Tory MPs to unite behind the plan.
By taking aim at the Eurosceptics, Mr Clarke merely risks igniting another row distracting attention from the central message about the economy. But it does more. It risks exposing a major flaw in the PM’s plan.
Let me say that from the outset I wholeheartedly support the David Cameron’s plans for renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU. After all, no one of my generation, or indeed a good deal older, took part in the last referendum and since then the European Community has changed beyond recognition – from a trading club to something akin to a sovereign nation with it own laws, courts, defence force, police and even a foreign policy.
But, while those in the Tory party, including Mr Cameron, have started to set out the changes they want, not least a crackdown on welfare payments to EU migrants, what will our European partners demand in return?
Those close to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said that she will not countenance any change to the free movement of labour rules, but is open to the idea of benefit reform. So not completely negative.
But we have heard very little from Brussels, Paris, Madrid or any other EU capital.
We know that the French have their eyes on the British rebate, negotiated by Margaret Thatcher in 1984. It has been a source of tension between our two countries for many years. Of course, it was partially surrendered by Tony Blair in 2005, in return for a vague promise to look at the Common Agricultural Policy. This was a disastrous decision that cost the UK an estimated £9.3 billion between 2007 and 2013, equivalent to a nearly £350 for every household. These figures are based on 2004 prices and were prepared by the House of Commons Library, meaning the figure in today’s money is significantly higher. The French still have the return of our dosh in their sights.
Spain might demand some sort shared sovereignty deal on Gibraltar. This peninsular ceded to the UK in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht has been a constant bugbear of Madrid’s since the time of General Franco. Indeed, for those with friends on the Rock, they will be all too familiar with the daily harassment that British citizens have to endure: border closures, extensive searches, infringement of British territorial waters – the list is endless.
EU apparatchiks have longed coveted Britain’s chair on the UN Security Council so they can play in the “big league” of nation states, alongside the US, Russia and China. With this also comes the need for a full-blown European army. The EU defence force or EUFOR simply would not be sufficient. The other problem would be such a move would almost certainly see the end of Nato, the bedrock of our defence policy since its inception.
There are likely to be other demands such as vengeful EU bureaucrats trying to slip in new regulations aimed at weakening the dominance of the City of London.
All of these would have to be resisted if the renegotiation is to be a genuine repatriation of powers back to Westminster. Otherwise it’s just a PR stunt and one the would have far-reaching implications.
But before we get to this, we must start spelling out the areas of compromise, the grey areas where a deal can done, and not just a few vague red lines that while making good headlines do little to inform the great EU debate.