UK’s Europe ‘audit’: True debate or eurosceptic vote-winning ‘ploy’?

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The statement from British Foreign Secretary William Hague that his government would conduct a full "audit" of the impact of EU law on Britain has been condemned by commentators as a mere public relations stunt. But the coalition government has defended it as a chance for constructive debate on the role of the EU institutions at national level.

Hague said on 12 July that by 2014 the government would conduct a “comprehensive audit” on the impact of EU legislation on the UK.

Hague said “government departments will be tasked with consulting and inviting evidence from everyone with a knowledge of, interest in, the exercise of the EU’s competences,” thereby fulfilling a long-standing commitment from the coalition government's 2010 agreement to "examine the balance of the EU's existing competences".

The foreign secretary said that British “public disillusionment with the EU is the greatest it has ever been”.

To Hague, the audit would be about testing the grounds for a “flexible membership”. He denied it would be about disengaging or withdrawing from the EU, therefore echoing Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s position that the UK needed to renegotiate its relationship with the EU but that membership was still in “Britain’s best interests”.

Writing in the Sunday Times, Cameron said the question of the UK’s relationship with Europe needed to be addressed, but not until the next election.

“On Europe … we British need a fresh settlement – and a fresh mandate. Work on that can begin now but it is an issue to deal with in the next [UK] parliament, under a majority Conservative government,” he wrote.

Reclaiming eurosceptic voters

To some politicians and commentators, Hague and Cameron are either not going far enough or are merely trying to appease eurosceptic Tory backbenchers and keep the Conservatives from losing voters to the UK independence party (UKIP).

In a column last week in right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail, historian and journalist Nigel Jones wrote a piece entitled “Don’t be fooled! Hague’s EU ‘audit’ is just a can-kicking trick to hoodwink gullible Tories”, claiming that the UK’s political elite were “throwing dust in the eyes” of the British people.

To Jones, David Cameron – a “Europhile” – was only pretending “to do something to protect Britain against the ever-encroaching power of the European Union to rob this country of its independence and liberty and sink us into an undemocratic European superstate.”

He argued Cameron and Hague were only “going though the motions of Euroscepticism”, because of pressure from Nigel Farage’s UKIP.

UKIP released a statement on 12 July saying the EU ‘audit’ did “not go far enough”. The eurosceptic group, which describes itself as a party “seeking Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union”, said it applauded the review.

Despite that, Farage said he thought the ‘audit’ would be “set up in such a way as to provide the answers it wants to hear”. It was, he said, “no doubt to tell us that everything is just fine thank you”.

Labour MEP David Martin was equally sceptical about the point of the review, hoping it would not mean a “long drawn out Tory-inspired face-saver to keep Cameron’s back-benchers quiet till 2014.” Martin explained in a party statement, “Cameron has party political problems at home with growing swathes of anti-European backbenchers, and he just wants this long drawn out ‘audit’ to put the EU issue in the long grass”.

Parallel review

Perhaps surprisingly the UK's other major political parties showed their support for a review, but one aimed contributing to the European debate surrounding the role of the EU in member states, and not as a stepping stone towards UK withdrawal.

Martin mooted the possibility of a "parallel audit", saying British citizens should have the chance to make up their own mind on their participation in the EU based on a ‘fair’ review. "It’s quite right that the British people should know about the impact of the EU", he said, calling for a review that was not a “propaganda exercise”.

In a post published on EURACTIV’s blogsite BlogActiv.eu, British EU advocacy group Nucleus – which is to contribute to the review – wondered if the ‘audit’ was not a "cynical ploy to fend off the Europhobes".

In the piece entitled ‘Audit awry’, David Gow said Labour was considering a "parallel audit", but warned that the exercise should not turn into an "audit of war" and remain an "honest assessment of where British interests and identity lie now and in the future."

Former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy delivered the Lib Dems’ formal response to Hague's statement, saying: "This review will help inform people about our positive agenda for Europe by providing a constructive and serious British-led contribution to the wider European debate about how to modernise, reform and improve the EU."

The daily Guardian said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was believed to not be opposed to the review but wanted it to be undertaken in a low-key manner to avoid souring relations with other EU member states. This will seem especially important after European Commission Chairman José Manuel Barroso recently lashed out at British eurosceptics.

Mutual interests to UK participation in EU: Barroso

As guest editor of last week’s New Statesman, a left-leaning political magazine, Labour leader Ed Miliband interviewed Barroso, who described himself as an 'anglophile'. Warning about the "extremist voices" that can emerge in times of crisis, the head of the EU executive said the UK’s participation in Europe was important to the interests of both areas.

He claimed a Europe without Britain would be "less reform driven, less open, less international".

The Commission president said he thought the UK should be pushing for a bigger place at the EU negotiating table.

"I find it a little bit ironic that some people are suggesting for Britain a role comparable to that of say Norway or Switzerland … I think Britain is expecting a bigger role in the world than small countries," he said.

Barroso said he could not reconcile the contradiction that Britain appears to be "so open to the world, and apparently so closed to Europe."

The EU executive will be hoping the 'audit' provides lessons on the impact of EU legislation on members states and does not add more fuel to the fire of British euroscepticism.

?Mats Persson, the director for eurosceptic think-tank Open Europe, was quoted by Dutch magazine Trouw as saying a Norway-style deal would mean the UK would have to accept just as much regulation in areas like employment law but without the ability to influence or vote on EU legislation.

Tim Bale, a professor at Sussex Universityexplained that every nation would like to have free access to European markets without conforming to EU rules. “It doesn’t work like that. They’re probably deluding themselves if they think they can get anything other than symbolic concessions on the part of other EU member states”, he said.

Stauch Tory eurosceptic Bill Cash welcomed the review but called for the government to consider “the necessity for a referendum as soon as it can possibly take place”.

Liam Fox, the UK’s former defense secretary, expressed a similar opinion in British broadsheet the Daily Telegraph, saying there was “no terror” in a UK exit from the EU. Fox called for a referendum to renegotiate the UK’s position in Europe, adding that “our aiming point should be as loose a union as we can possibly get”.

One Liberal Democrat source was quoted as saying, “The idea that at the time when there is a crisis in the eurozone that you go to Brussels and demand a sackload of powers and bring them back on the Eurostar is for the birds.”

Former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy said “Holding the EU to ransom as some want to do does not work.” He said a ‘Norway-style’ deal would “without a UK seat at the table, unable to stand up for the UK’s interests when neighbouring countries make separate agreements on growth and financial services, and powerless over serious cross-border issues like pollution, climate change or organised crime,” adding that such a deal was “not standing up for Britain”.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso commented, "The fact that some are suggesting for Britain a role that is smaller than the one Britain already has today seems to me a little bit curious. When the prime minister of Britain meets the president of the United States, or the president of China, he has a much stronger status and much stronger leverage because everybody knows that Britain is very influential in the shaping of European policy."

Europsceptic Member of the European Parliament Dan Hannan, of the alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR), said on twitter he was "delighted that William Hague plans an audit of EU membership. I hope people will take part and not leave it to the civil service.

MEP Jacqueline Foster (AECR) expressed similar satisfaction, tweeting she was "delighted" with the move.

Labour MP Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, noted that former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy was the only backbencher to have listened to Hague's statement in person, implying divisions in the coalition. Alexander said Labour had "no objection to a proper, thorough and factual analysis of what the EU does and how it affects us in the UK."

British Conservative MP Margot James said she was "pleased to see William Hague announcing audit into our membership of the EU today, with each Dept [department] reporting back on EU regs [regulations] hampering the UK".

British Labour MP Ben Bradshaw tweeted "the lunacy displayed by most Tory MPs in William Hague's Commons EU statement boosts my confidence in the outcome of the next election."

Patrick O'Flynn, political commentator for the Daily Express, said the 'audit' was yet another example of  "fence-sitting" under Cameron's government.

While Lord Pearson of Rannoch and other UKIP members have long campaigned for an inquiry into the "economic and benefits arising from our membership of the EU institutions", a cost-benefit analysis will reportedly not take place due the to the difficulty of quantiying such aspects of EU membership as foreign affairs influence.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who has been largely critical of the EU, entered an uneasy government coalition in 2010 with the pro-European Liberal Democrat party.

But as the eurozone eyes greater fiscal, banking and possibly even political integration to sovereign solve its debt crisis, Cameron is under growing pressure from the rebellious right wing of his own party to give Britons a vote on whether they wish to remain inside the EU or to downgrade their relationship with Brussels.

Senior politicians from the Labour party have sought to gain advantage from Cameron's difficult position, calling for Britain to clarify its relations with the EU by holding a referendum.

  • ?By 2014?: Review into the impact of EU legislation on the UK before British general election.
  • 2015: Next general election to be held in the UK

?Press articles

?Political group statements

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