EU renegotiation – then and now
As David Cameron prepares to meet his fellow EU leaders for the first time since he won his mandate for a renegotiation, I’ve been talking to some with memories of the 1974-5 Common Market renegotiation and asking what lessons it has for the one David Cameron is embarking on.
One odd parallel is that the polls got it wrong in 1974 and Brussels had the shock of its life when Labour, with a renegotiation and referendum commitment, got in.
It was quickly soothed when Harold Wilson announced he would not be seeking full-scale treaty change. That was immediately rubbished by anti-Common Market supporters in his own party who, in 1974, were in the majority amongst MPs, members, the NEC and, at the beginning of this process, in the Cabinet too.
David Cameron isn’t outnumbered in the same way but you get a sense that his current parliamentary party consists, rather like the last one, of 40 or so 100 per cent committed “outers” and perhaps two dozen committed Europeans with the rest of the party in the middle ground of a party that is much more Euro-sceptic than it used to be.
Both Harold Wilson and David Cameron ended up pushing for European renegotiation, as Baroness Shirley Williams says, because of internal party division. Both have had to say they don’t rule out recommending that Britain quits.
Lord Bernard Donoughue, who worked in No. 10 for Harold Wilson, says the Wilson/Callaghan duo were lucky in their European allies. Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Schmidt even paid a visit to Labour Conference to plead with Labour to stay in the Common Market – hard to see how David Cameron could even risk an invitation to Chancellor Merkel after his party left her European Parliament grouping.
Lord David Hannay, who then worked for the British European Commissioner, Christopher Soames, says the renegotiation certainly felt like hard work at the time. Shirley Williams acknowledges a lot of it was “window dressing … played up for all it was worth.” Bernard Donoughue says some allies in Europe even played along to make the relatively thin achievements seem a little bolder than they were.
Lord Hannay points out that the actual word “renegotiation” was never used by the European Commission. That was too toxic and risked inviting other countries to ask for the same. One FCO source told me that European partners seem to be avoiding it all over again, preferring to talk about “addressing British concerns.”
I spoke to senior Tory backbenchers who sounded mightily unimpressed by the prospect of anything less than treaty change – even post-dated treaty change left them underwhelmed.
The moment of maximum danger for Harold Wilson came when he completed the negotiations, proclaimed it a triumph and the anti-Common Market forces tried to rally against him, in the Conference and in Labour’s National Executive Committee. One senior Tory said he thought Party Conference could be a moment for David Cameron’s critics too if he doesn’t produce the goods – the National Convention which meets in private at the Conference (Association chairmen and Area chairmen) was also flagged up as a potential tough moment.
And whereas Harold Wilson allowed Cabinet ministers to challenge his negotiating strategy and argue with each other in public, David Cameron is refusing to relax the line. The maximum moment of danger for him could come if a few big name Cabinet ministers decided their conscience demanded they oppose a renegotiation he’d declared a success.
For now though he faces first informal chats with EU partners around the summit in Riga on Friday and then some clearer indications of what he wants in June, ahead of the European Council in Brussels.
In 1976, Professor David Butler and Uwe Kitzinger wrote a guide to the 1975 Referendum to run in the Nuffield Election series. They concluded that for all the shifts the polls recorded in public opinion there was no evidence that the renegotiation had any influence on the outcome of the actual referendum. As with the Scottish referendum last year, the central argument for many voters appears to have been economic wellbeing.
Lord Donoughue says Harold Wilson’s plan was use the pro-Europe majority in the country to face down the anti-Europe majority in his party. He pulled it off. Though some point out that the anti-Europe troops soon rallied and, after Jim Callaghan’s defeat in the 1979 General Election, took over the party.