Conservatives who trusted in William Hague’s reputation as a eurosceptic must be profoundly disappointed. In the last nine months or so, this Conservative-led government has been handing powers to Brussels faster than the previous Labour administration did before it. We’ve had the EU diplomatic service; a whole new EU financial regulation structure; the EU Investigation Order; and the roll-over on the budget. This government has no business to ask us to trust it on Europe, and its EU Bill conferred no new powers on parliament or on the people – in effect, it merely asked us to keep trusting the government, on an issue where it clearly has not earned our trust, and appears to have no intention of attempting to do so.
Some of these EU measures were provided for in the Lisbon Treaty. Yet we seem to have welcomed them.We Conservative MEPs have been whipped to support them. Cameron has been robust on euro membership – but we’ve seen a £7 billion loan from the UK to Ireland to prop up the euro.
The City of London has the lion’s share of the EU’s financial services business, yet we’ve agreed for it to be regulated from Brussels and Frankfurt. With that, and our punitive taxes on high earners and our endemic bank-bashing, companies and high-net-worth individuals are already buying tickets to Switzerland. I pay tribute to my colleague Vicky Ford MEP who has fought tooth-and-nail, and with some success, to modify the proposals and limit the damage. But we have conceded the principle, and that’s a gross dereliction of the government’s duty.
Why are they doing this?Weren’t Cameron and Hague of a broadly sceptic disposition? Their first priority is, quite rightly, the deficit, and so their second priority is to keep the Coalition on an even keel to deal with the deficit. For these reasons they don’t want to be distracted by a huge row with Brussels, nor do they want a row with the Lib Dems.
The European Union Bill with its sovereignty clause was merely intended as a sop to eurosceptics, to buy off opposition and rebellion. Yet for the government to offer a sop which is transparently worthless is merely to demonstrate contempt for its own supporters. And Cameron should never forget that the great majority of Conservative members and activists are eurosceptics. If they are to be treated in this cavalier fashion, it would be unwise to rely on their enthusiasm and commitment in future elections.
We’re promised referendums on new transfers of powers to Brussels, yet we have no referendum on any of these recent measures. And Europe Minister David Lidington has indicated that he expects no referendum in this parliament – perhaps for another four years.
Vince Cable has previously told a Brussels audience that the EU institutions had been “pleasantly surprised” by the Coalition’s engagement with, and commitment to the EU project. And for once Vince wasn’t wrong. We’re selling out.
Just this week a new issue, which could be pivotal, came to the fore, as parliament voted by an overwhelming majority against giving votes to convicts, in defiance of the ECHR and the European Court of Human Rights. I appreciate that the ECHR is not the same as the EU, but as a political statement about Europe, it’s a very powerful issue – and one where parliament and people are united.
I know what Cameron ought to do now, and what I hope he will do. He should tell the Court, and the Council of Europe, and the European Commission, that the UK’s sovereign parliament has determined that we do not allow convicts to vote, that we do not agree that our position infringes their Human Rights, that we will not entertain any fine or sanction from the Court, and that we will not hear, nor pay, any claims for compensation. He should add that if necessary we will pass a new law to this effect.
Will he deliver? I hope so. But I’m not sure. It could be a defining moment. If he gives way, we can abandon any pretence that we’re an independent country with a sovereign parliament.
Roger Helmer is a Conservative MEP for the East Midlands