Today’s midday press briefing at the European Commission was of course dominated by questions about the Cameron speech. This was despite efforts by Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen, Barroso’s spokesman-in-chief.
First she tried to downplay the implications of the speech by making an anodyne statement welcoming democratic debate in member states. Then she announced that questions on Cameron’s speech would be limited to three. A growl came up from the press corps that indicated she should think again. So she took more questions. She just didn’t much answer them.
I asked Pia if she could describe for me any existing mechanism under present treaties by which Britain could claw back powers which have already been surrendered to the EU. She gave only a brief reference to treaty change, then refused to take a follow-up question. Yet giving a follow-up is the usual procedure.
I wasn’t surprised. What the Commission won’t come out and say - because it would hand another weapon to eurosceptics - is that it is legally impossible for any EU institution or EU member states to hand back powers to Britain, even if they want to.
Legal mechanisms for handing back powers - ‘competences,’ in the jargon - do not exist. A whole new treaty would have to be created, re-jigging the legal basis of the EU. Is that going to happen? No. Anyway, it would be the work of a generation, not of the few years between now and the middle of the next Government.
Such a treaty change would have to assume that all the other member states could indeed be persuaded by a Tory politician to declare null and void the Treaty of Rome’s imperative of ‘an ever closer union.’
‘Ever closer’ means, and has meant from the start, that powers run on a one-way street. This is the founding doctrine of the true faith of the European Union believers. It is as essential to the EU as the doctrine of transubstantiation is to the Catholic Church: if that doctrine falls, it all falls. Which is why the powers won’t let it fall.
However, what happened today at the commission press briefing was confirmation that no EU institution is likely to advertise that fact to the British. The eurocrats would rather let Cameron go on for years in what, in the end, can only be a pantomime of negotiation.