15 Jan 2014

Osborne to EU: no dodging a new treaty

At the Institute of Mechanical Engineers round the corner from parliament to hear George Osborne lecture EU partners on how to get economic growth.

It sounds like Tory MPs were meant to be in for a lecture themselves last night when they were summoned late in the day to an address from their leader. MPs closely connected with the round robin letter that went to the PM calling on David Cameron to pass a law allowing him to veto EU laws.

Well the clash didn’t quite come off like that.

Barely half the party’s MPs turned up. The ringleaders, thinking they were going to be rebuked, skipped the occasion.

They needn’t have worried too much. The PM implied no letters were needed and his “door (was) always open” in reply to an MP asking if he thought “off-message” MPs were being unhelpful.


George Osborne’s audience this morning included a lot of senior figures from London’s embassies, not least the US Embassy keeping an eagle eye on the partner it wants to stay in the EU.

His audience included quite a few of the Tory MPs who signed the “veto laws” letter, a wheeze his former boss and cabinet colleague William Hague has dismissed as unworkable.

Much of the attack on sclerotic and over-regulated Europe sounded familiar, even with echoes of Tony Blair’s later speeches on Europe.

But the core of his speech was about the need to protect the rights of countries who choose not to enter the euro.

He claimed a lot of achievements so far in defending the UK’s interests, particularly in the area of financial services. But his speech was a plea for a new treaty.

Only Germany actually calls for one with regularity, though he said the Italian PM had called for treaty change too. Other members run a mile from the idea and the problem is that this is looking like a major obstacle to David Cameron’s entire European strategy (and his credibility with his own MPs, amongst others).

The PM’s renegotiation-followed-by-referendum strategy is based on a premise of a renegotiation opportunity happening.

This speech is part of the on-going  attempt to try to explode the massive road-block in its way: an existential fear of treaties amongst many member countries who fear they cannot get a treaty past national electorates in referenda that could be used to reject whatever it was the sitting government in an age of austerity wanted to get passed.

But the resistance is real, the fear existential and today served notice of a fight that is in no way won yet.

One EU ambassador who was at the speech said afterwards that there was “no chance whatsoever of a treaty being completed by 2017,” the timescale in David Cameron’s plan for a post-treaty negotiation referendum.

He said he’d love to have asked the chancellor what he’d do if there was no completed renegotiation by 2017 – postpone the referendum or go ahead and vote to come out? Alas, he wasn’t called to ask it.

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