Whatever happened to British diplomacy in Europe?
by our secret columnist in Brussels
You could hardly choose a less propitious moment to talk about 'loosening' the grip of the EU – yet this is what the Conservative element of the British government has chosen to do, writes Schadenfreude
In another parts of the forest, or jungle, the talk is of "more Europe", up to and including European Union control of national budgets to ensure that they remain viable and in no need of a cash injection. Hard as it is to believe, the talk goes on to envisage political union in which national sovereignty is replaced, to a degree not yet specified, by collective government.
So it is in this hothouse that the British government – if it speaks with one voice, which remains to be seen – has decided to reach what it calls a "new settlement" of its place in the EU. It wants to remove itself from single market regulations that it considers damaging to business enterprise and consequently to the growth that the economy needs but has not achieved.
This démarche, if adopted, would be unlike the "renegotiation" that the Labour government conducted in 1974-75, leading up to the only referendum ever held in the United Kingdom on EU membership. That was largely a matter of the UK interpreting what it said it had achieved, without any need for treaty amendment. In 2012-13 the British government, if unified, wants to talk about formal reductionism when several of the other member states are talking about what used to be called "deepening". Not a happy combination.
Moreover, even if deepening was not around, the other members could hardly be expected to welcome assertions that policies of the EU are damaging to economic prospects. If they were to accept that the British were on to something, would they not likewise be recognising that they too are being damaged by the EU as it is, to say nothing of what it might become – the latter of which, logically, the UK would also wishe to exempt itself.
Add to the equation that the apparent British demands would not have the support of the European Commission or of the majority in the European Parliament, and imply an amending treaty to relieve the UK of the burdens it does not want to carry while remaining in the single market. That has the corollary of parliamentary debate throughout the EU and in some countries referendums, which put governments under wider scrutiny. Whatever happened to British diplomacy?