Europe: Click your heels three times…

Did you know the Guardian has an editorial policy against footnotes?

I didn’t, until I tried to cram in huge wodges of extraneous information into an already overlong article I wrote for their Commentisfree section.

I mention this because among the obscure references I was prevented from sharing with the liberal horde was a discussion of the political symbolism of the Wizard of Oz.

Some argue Oz was originally a parable of William Jennings Bryan and the populist bimetallists, while the movie version became something of a New Deal parable.1.

Such arguments seem to be overstated, but whether populist parable or celebration of the power of positive thinking and the can-do spirit, the message of Oz seems to be if you only want something enough, you can usually find a way to get it. Unfortunately, that’s rarely true.

So perhaps when I read David Davis’s speech on Europe today2, I was primed to think of Dorothy’s Silver shoes, and their magical ability to transport their owners to wherever they would like to be.

Davis’s speech is predicated on just such a magical property. In effect, he is inviting the Prime Minister to click his heels three times and transport the nation to 1972.

Here is Davis’s reform agenda for Europe:

We should seek the repatriation of a whole range of powers to create a new relationship between Britain and the EU. 

We should take back all of our justice and home affairs powers.

We should take back immigration powers.

We should take back control of social and employment legislation.

We should give our government the final say on health and safety legislation. 

And we should protect Britain from financial regulation designed to punish the UK’s success. 

We should take back all of these things and more, and take them back permanently

Plus, of course, we should cut the EU budget, retain our rebate, and, once we’ve done all that, invite France and Germany to join the new ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Europe’.

How would we do this? By inviting the British people to vote for such a negotiating position, securing that negotiating position, then getting the British people to approve our triumphant negotiating success.

This isn’t European policy. It’s a fantasy of wish fulfilment.

I invite anyone, anywhere, to set out a scenario where this would be acceptable to any of the rest of Europe.

We’d like to be in Europe, we’d be saying, but we don’t want to have to be subject to your rules, or have free movement of labour, or common regulation if we don’t like the sound of it.

In return, we’ll undercut you on wages, taxes and employment legislation, so businesses will invest with us, not with you. Now, let’s make a deal.

Click your heels three times, and it’s possible.

Reading this drivel, I wondered if this was simply revenge. Back in 2005, David Davis lost the Tory leadership, partly because David Cameron outflanked him on the Euro-sceptic right by saying he’d pull the Tories out of the Centre-Right European People’s party.3

The double referendum Davis is proposing now was also his 2005 attempt to re-attach the Tory Euro-Sceptics to his colours. It wasn’t enough. As Charles Moore pointed out at the time:

Mr Davis did little for Euro-scepticism. As a whip, he helped bash through the dreadful Maastricht treaty. I notice that most of the committed, expert Euro-sceptics – David Heathcoat-Amory, Bill Cash, Daniel Hannan – are backing Mr Cameron. Mr Davis wants to maintain the Tories’ membership of the Europhile European People’s Party at the European Parliament, while Mr Cameron says he will stop it.”

So perhaps I could read Mr Davis’s speech today as a bit of ‘afters’, a bit of revenge stored up for a while.

This seems unsatisfactory.

I can understand the Conservative party’s European policy in terms of resolving their own internal tensions. You have an obdurate, committed, dedicated block who want to leave the EU, a group who vaguely desire a distancing from the EU but have little conception of how to achieve this, and a group of cynical pragmatists who care little about the EU but are willing to play the first two groups off against Brussels for their own advantage.

What I can’t do is understand how any such agenda is going to be delivered in the real world.

Instead, we’ll see more of what we’re already getting from David Cameron: a constantly increasing gap between anti-EU rhetoric and negotiated reality. If we demand to be transported to the era of Heath and De Gaulle, everyone else just looks at us oddly, and eventually tries to find a way around us.

For Labour, this represents a warning. Ed Miliband today gave an excellent speech about the need to reform Europe, and the need to avoid sleep-walking towards the European exit in the manner I just described (Though I don’t think it’s sleep-walking. It’s more of a worm wriggling on a hook it impaled itself on).

Left for another day, however, was the question of what happens to our realistic demands for reform if Europe asks us to reform some things we don’t want to reform in return.

Labour might be more relaxed than the Conservatives on further environmental, social or employment advances, but wouldn’t discussions on the rebate, or the financial sector, or taxation harmonisation prove equally awkward for a Labour PM as a Tory? Would we be prepared to give up our new enthusiasm for transitional immigration controls to build alliances with new EU entrants on other issues?4

When it comes to European reform and budget negotiations, Mr Cameron is clicking his heels furiously but finds nothing is happening. Mr Davis has helpfully suggested the Prime Minister click harder.

At some point, a British Prime Minister is going to have to tell us our magic slippers are sadly absent, and that to get to the emerald city, we’re going to have to go down the Yellow Brick Road, cross the forest and struggle through the deadly poppy field.

  1. A fact I did not know but should have done: The lyricist of ‘somewhere over the Rainbow’ also wrote ‘Brother can you spare a dime’ and got his nickname from being a member of the young people’s Socialist league []
  2. there is a transcript at Politicshome, but no link for them, as they’ve put a public speech behind a paywall, which is teh suxxzor []
  3. again, these things run deep. Cameron’s intervention apparently won him the support of Fox supporter John Hayes, now the Don Quixote of the Windfarms, while Davis’s offer on Fishing policy won him Owen Paterson, now whispered of as a rising star of the robust right []
  4. A new report by the IPPR rather avoids all this. It spends its first chapter setting out how much the British hate the EU, the second chapter saying why we’re wrong to do so, the third chapter sketching out a pleasant progressive fantasy of EU reform and the fourth imagining how nice it would be if the EU were entirely different to how it is, and concludes that such an imaginary EU would be worthy of, and achieve wide support. Perhaps I am unfair, but this seems rather like a progressive, centre left form of thrice-heel-clicking. It is one that I agree with, and would love to see come to pass, but suspect has a similar chance of success as Mr Davis’s less congenial vision. It might be worth selling, nevertheless.

    Addendum: I am being unfair in one respect. The IPPR report explicitly places the UK rebate on the chopping block, which is something to credit. Unfortunately, it then finds a way to argue that this would end up saving the UK money. Sadly, that’s pure thrice-heel-clicking []

3 Responses to “Europe: Click your heels three times…”

Leave a Reply