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”.
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.