EU Bill 'otiose', claims Wayne David
UK government's Eurosceptic legislation will damage national interest, writes shadow Europe minister
It is difficult to know what, precisely, is the British Government's policy towards the European Union. That is because the government does its level best to say as little as possible about the EU.
For example, the coalition no longer has parliamentary debates before each meeting of the European Council - and David Cameron has indicated that he is more than happy for eurozone countries to discuss and agree anything they like - so long as Britain does not have to be involved.
I believe that such an attitude is against the country's national interest. The UK is best served when we take an active role inside the EU, arguing our case and promoting our interests.
This, I suspect, is recognised in private by some of the more sensible elements in the government. But the main objective of the Prime Minister is to keep together the pro-European Liberal Democrats and the Eurosceptics of the Conservative Party in the unholy alliance, which is part of the Tory-led administration.
It is therefore understandable, if highly regrettable, that the government has so little to say for fear of offending one or other of these polarised elements. The one exception to this is the EU Bill. This is coming to the end of its passage through the House of Commons and will soon enter the Lords.
By common agreement, this is one of the worst pieces of legislation that has been before parliament for 30 years. The bill has two main parts. Firstly, there is the so-called sovereignty clause. This is totally otiose, in that it neither adds to nor takes away from existing laws.
It is widely accepted that the British parliament is sovereign and that EU law only has primacy in the UK because parliament has deemed that it should. This principle of duality is accepted by the government and the sovereignty clause merely reaffirms the status quo.
The more important part of the bill concerns referenda. In mind boggling detail, the legislation sets out the circumstances in which a referendum would have to be held if a future government wished to agree to a transfer of power from the UK to the EU.
So if it was felt that there ought to be a change in the method of appointment of auditor generals in the European Court of Justice, there would have to be referendum. But, the bill states that the government would have a degree of flexibility in determining the significance of some changes - and it expressly states that referenda would not be held on future enlargement of the EU.
While I am not in favour of such referenda, it is surely a bizarre inconsistency for the bill to enable referenda to be held on issues of esoteric minutiae while specifically excluding a referendum on the possible accession of Turkey to the EU.
The bill however fulfils an important political function; it is an attempt to placate the vociferous and increasingly assertive right-wing wing of the Conservative Party. At the general election, there was a significant increase in the number of Eurosceptic Tory MPs elected - who are not merely extremely critical of everything European, but who are prepared to call for Britain's outright withdrawal from the EU.
The government was hoping that Eurosceptic backbenchers would see this bill as a piece of red meat and, as such, it would serve to buy them off. If this was the aim, it has clearly failed. Rather than placating the Eurosceptics, it has served only to embolden them.
It is now very clear that the rebellious Eurosceptics will continue to be a huge problem for the Tories throughout the course of this parliament. All of this is happening when Britain and the rest of Europe is struggling to come out of the worst economic downturn since the 1930s.
Rather than getting itself embroiled in this convoluted piece of legislation, the coalition should be working with our supranational partners to ensure that Europe as a whole has a growth strategy which will have job creation at its heart. And even though we are outside of the eurozone, and will remain so, our country needs to be fully engaged in the discussions and decisions about how the single currency will tackle its current problems and develop in the future.
The government needs to be reminded that the eurozone receives half of Britain's exports and Britain is an exporting nation. I firmly believe that Britain's future is in Europe. It is in our national interest for us to be putting forward our case with conviction and passion.
But it is also important for us to recognise that in an increasingly globalised economy, there are occasions when it is necessary for Britain to pool its sovereignty. To turn in on ourselves or to have as little to do with the EU as possible is to betray the country.
Wayne David MP is shadow minister for Europe