It looks like Britain could be heading for renegotiation with the EU sooner rather than later. The UK, Hungary, Czechs and Swedes last night stayed out of a 27-member EU Treaty. ‘I don’t want to put it in front of my parliament,’ said Cameron. But in an historic move, the deal is going ahead anyway, with 23 members: the Eurozone, plus the six states who want to join. ‘We will achieve the new fiscal union,’ said Angela Merkel. Nicholas Sarkozy is upbeat saying it has been an ‘historic summit’ which will change the EU ‘radically’. If so, then Owen Paterson is right in his interview with James Forsyth in the new Spectator: Britain will have to reassess its relationship with this ‘radically’ different EU.
Cameron did the right thing. And, as he says, he didn’t really have an option. This wasn’t him being petulant — it’s just a simple reflection of where opinion is in his country, and parliament. As I say in my Daily Telegraph column today, the new Treaty is not about saving Europe. It’s a power grab by the French and Germans. Sarkozy wanted power to be transferred from the UK financial services regulator to a new pan-European regulator. Under the terms of Cameron’s ‘triple lock’, any transfer of power would have triggered a referendum. By his own (welcome) reform, the Prime Minister didn’t have the power to sign along the dotted line. The Czechs and the Swedes are going to discuss the issue in their parliament, and may join later — although it’s unlikely.
This now poses a very serious question: how will these 23 members proceed? The EU is designed to regulate 27 member states. ‘We will insist that the EU institutions, the court and the Commission work for all 27 nations of the EU,’ says Cameron. Listening to the other leaders today, they seem to have other ideas. So where does this leave Britain? This is a very different question, that will now have to be at the centre of our EU policy.
UPDATE: As Colin says below, the BBC will be keen to present this as Cameron unilaterally vetoing a deal the rest of the EU was all set to sign. But look around. Sweden’s Fredrik Reinfeldt has just echoed what Cameron said in the press conference: he couldn’t have signed up for Treaty change because his country and parliament would not wear it. There is, said Reinfeldt, ‘no support for a treaty change in Sweden as of now. We are of course willing to discuss different measures but I think the core of the problems we have in Europe is economic. They need to be dealt with now and in that capacity a treaty change could be too time-consuming.’ The Swedes and Hungarians met last month to compare notes: both agreed that they could not sign Treaty change on the night. The Czech PM, Petr Nečas, had announced before the summit that he didn't want any Treaty change — but if the EU17 wanted to pursue fiscal union, then he’d support them. This was also Britain’s position. Let's remember, nothing agreed last night will fix the debt crisis. The only link is that, if they agree fiscal union, Merkel may be more inclined to let the ECB print money and inflate the debt away.