Lord Kerr Speaks for Those Who Care about Britain in Europe

Albert Weale, Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy at UCL, discusses David Cameron’s tactics as he prepares to fight for reform of the European Union. It remains unclear what Cameron wants from the other European governments, but he risks alienating any allies through his current negotiation strategies.

Suppose you were in dispute with your bank about the way your account was being handled.  How would you deal with the matter? Would you try to identify the issues and have a rational conversation with the organisation or would you bluster, make some general accusations and threaten to close your account unless some yet to be identified changes were made? If you were sensible, you would do the first, never the second.

Transpose this situation to Britain’s relationship with the European Union. For the last five years, David Cameron has been the epitome of bluster, making general but unspecified complaints and threatening to walk out if he does not get his way. Yet no one knows what he wants even if he did get his way.

I cannot have been the only person looking on the UK’s stance of EU negotiation strategy – if you can dignify it with that term – with a mixture of disbelief and frustration at its incompetence.  But now an experienced and informed voice has put the issue as clearly as possible.  In a calmly articulated article in the Financial Times for 22 April, John Kerr has devastatingly highlighted Cameron’s incompetence.

John Kerr is no ordinary op-ed writer. He was the British Ambassador to the EU between 1990 and 1995 and Ambassador to the US between 1995 and 1997, moving on to being Permanent Under-Secretary at the FCO from 1997 to 2002. In other words, he knows a thing or two about how international negotiations are conducted. As Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, he has sat on various House of Lords committees on the European Union since 2006 and he was Secretary General to the Constitutional Convention from 2002 to 2003. So he understands the EU.

In the article, he points out how in 2011 Cameron wanted safeguards for the City of London, but launched his ideas in a midnight European Council, with no advance preparation. It can hardly be surprising that the proposals sank without trace. In a speech in 2013 Cameron argued for measures to increase EU competitiveness. Again no specifics have been forthcoming. What would you think if you were another European government?

However, in probably the most damning indictment of the Cameron strategy, John Kerr draws attention to the 3,000 page survey of the ‘Balance of Competences’ review.  He points out that it identifies not a single subject on which reducing the EU’s power would benefit the UK.  No wonder, as Kerr says, the government has chosen to bury it.

How has it come about that the enormous bluster has led to nothing? I can think of two inter-locking explanations. The first is that local Conservative parties are increasingly dominated by the elderly and insular. No prospective candidate stands a chance of being selected unless they cater to the Eurosceptic prejudices of this group. But this group will not be pacified by a detailed explanation of what negotiating goals a UK government should pursue in Europe. That will never bring back the world they think they have lost.

The second explanation is that Cameron himself has a background in marketing. Suppose you wanted to launch a new product but did not have a clear idea of what it should look and smell like. If you are in marketing you put it out to focus groups. This is just what the ‘Balance of Competences’ review was. Those consulted on the options were being used as focus groups for a government incapable of generating its own ideas. Unfortunately for the government, the groups consulted liked the old product.

British politics has always had a large element of entertainment in the way it is conducted and perceived. It is amusing when our leaders slip up on banana skins. But some issues are too important to be treated as entertainment, and the UK’s negotiating potential in the EU is one of them. Is it too much to hope that after the election someone will take the issue seriously, whatever the result?


Professor Albert Weale FBA is Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy in the UCL School of Public Policy.

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