Analysis – What the coalition means for Europe

Phillip Souta

The new Europe Minster is David Lidington.  He is from the moderate section of the Conservative party, and takes a job that was originally tipped to go to Mark Francois, holder of the shadow position before the election and member of the more Eurosceptic wing of the party.  This realignment towards the mainstream is further evidence of the fact that Cameron is not an ideologue.  When he says that he will govern in the interests of stability, it sounds less and less like a cliché and more like his overriding political objective.

The feelings of the Tory right can be divined from their bell-weather, Bill Cash.  In today’s Daily Mail he says that ‘David Lidington is a well-established Europhile’, and that ‘It means they’ve overridden Mark Francois, who comes from the euro-realist wing of the party. It’s ridiculous.’

The realignment is also evident when you compare the parts of the Tory manifesto (pages 113-114) that deal with Europe to the part of the coalition agreement (page 5) that deals with it.  There is a very significant toning down, and what we have now, give or take a few issues, looks like a solid basis for our relations with Europe.

First, the manifesto included the commitment to “negotiate for three specific guarantees – on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, on criminal justice, and on social and employment legislation – with our European partners to return powers that we believe should reside with the UK, not the EU.”  That’s gone from the agreement.  It is replaced by the line “We will examine the balance of the EU’s existing competencies and will, in particular, work to limit the application of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom”.

This is a significant change.  Attempting to derogate from what used to be called the Social Chapter (it doesn’t exists anymore – its provisions have been subsumed within the EU treaties) would never happen; it would require unanimity and it would give the UK a significant competitive advantage over other member states.  Maintaining an opt-out from the working time directive however is a far more realistic and achievable aim.

Secondly, the manifesto said that a Sovereignty Bill would be introduced; the coalition agreement says that it will be examined.  A Sovereignty Bill is a peculiar concept; the UK Parliament clearly is sovereign within the bounds that it sets itself and needs no bill to affirm that.

Thirdly, on criminal justice there is now an undertaking that proposals will be looked at on a “case by case” basis, thereby stepping back from the blanket opposition to any such legislation.  The former position bound the hands of the government in areas like immigration and police sharing information across borders, whereas now the issues will be looked at on their merits.

There is also a welcome addition to the platform, that the government will press for the European Parliament to have just one seat in Brussels.  The monthly shuffling between Strasbourg and Brussels is the bane of MEPs’ lives and would save a considerable amount of money and time.

All in all, this government’s policy has been put on a much sounder basis.  It allows the government to negotiate with more credible objectives, which will in turn make it far easier to build alliances across the EU.