When David Cameron woke up this morning (Tuesday), it may have been to the realisation that he said too much in response to a grilling by Jeremy Corbyn over Europe yesterday.
Cameron had been to a meeting of the Council of Europe, the regional intergovernmental organisation with 47 member states best know for its operation of the European Court of Human Rights. One of the subjects he discussed there was the UK’s attempts to renegotiate the conditions of its membership in the European Union. He said:
“On the UK’s renegotiation, I set out the four things that we need to achieve. The first is sovereignty and subsidiarity, where Britain must not be part of an “ever closer union” and where we want a greater role for national Parliaments.
“Secondly, we must ensure that the EU adds to our competitiveness, rather than detracts from it, by signing new trade deals, cutting regulation and completing the single market. We have already made considerable progress. There has been an 80 per cent reduction in new legislative proposals under the new European Commission, and we have reached important agreements on a capital markets union, on liberalising services, and on completing the digital single market. Last week the Commission published a new trade strategy that reflects the agenda that Britain has been championing for years, including vital trade deals with America, China and Japan. But more needs to be done in that area.
“Thirdly, we need to ensure that the EU works for those outside the single currency and protects the integrity of the single market, and that we face neither discrimination nor additional costs from the integration of the Eurozone.
“Fourthly, on social security, free movement and immigration, we need to tackle abuses of the right to free movement, and deliver changes that ensure that our welfare system is not an artificial draw for people to come to Britain.”
Mr Corbyn instantly drew attention to matters that the PR Prime Minister had failed to mention. Noting that full discussion of the UK’s in/out referendum had been deferred to the December European Council meeting, he said:
“I think that all of us across the House and people across the country would echo the words of Chancellor Angela Merkel when she asked the UK to ‘clarify the substance of what it is envisaging’. There have been indications from Government advisers that the Prime Minister is trying to diminish the rights of UK workers through opt-out or dilution of the social chapter and the working time directive. However, other sources say the Prime Minister has retreated on those proposals.
“Working people in Britain are losing trust in a Government who attack their trade union rights and cut their tax credits, while giving tax breaks to millionaires.
“Will the Prime Minister confirm that Britain will remain signed up to the European convention on human rights and will not repeal the Human Rights Act 1998? The lack of clarity and openness from the Prime Minister means we do not know on what basis he is negotiating. Too often, we have been guided by anonymous press briefings from his inner court.
“Does he agree with Angela Merkel, as we on the Labour Benches do, that ‘there are achievements of European integration that cannot be haggled over, for example the principle of free movement and the principle of non-discrimination’? Again, clarity from the Prime Minister on that would be welcomed not just, I suspect, by his own backbenchers but by millions of people across the country.
“We believe we need stronger transnational co-operation on environmental and climate change issues, on workers’ rights, on corporate regulation and on tax avoidance.
“We will continue the European reform agenda. Labour is for staying in a Europe that works for the people of the UK and for all the people of Europe. We will not achieve that if all we are doing is shouting from the sidelines.
“On the referendum, will the Prime Minister confirm that the Government will now accept votes at 16 for the referendum, as per the amendment in the House of Lords?”
He also told Cameron that Labour will be “on his side” to support the proposed “red card” mechanism to give national Parliaments greater powers of influence over European legislation: “In fact, it is such a good thing that it was in Labour’s manifesto at the general election.”
Now on the back foot, Cameron had to work hard to regain the initiative. He started by claiming that the discussion of the referendum had not been deferred, but that the meeting in October had always been intended as an update, with a full discussion in December.
But he went on to contradict himself on “what we were delivering for working people in Europe”. Cameron said: “We are delivering two million jobs here in Britain for working people, with tax cuts for 29 million working people. I have set out in this statement again the reforms that we are pressing for in Europe.”
But later he added: “We do need to reform free movement; it should not be free movement for criminals or for people who are benefit shopping, for example, and we are already taking steps to ensure that that is not the case.”
So, he has delivered more jobs alongside tax cuts – making the UK a more attractive location for EU residents looking to immigrate in – but he wants to bar the entrance. This looks like a lie, to make it seem that Cameron has achieved something worthwhile.
The facts are that the jobs are low-paid and the tax cuts do not make up for the amount of income that working people have lost over the last five years of Tory rule. With the forthcoming tax credits cuts, millions of working people will no longer have enough money to make ends meet. That is the shame of the Conservatives and it is understandable that Cameron would want to hide it.
His dilemma is that it is his own rhetoric about his (imagined) achievements that is making the UK attractive to EU immigrants. We know the jobs are awful and the tax system has been skewed to benefit the rich, and we also know that the social security system has been sabotaged by Iain Duncan Smith – but that is because we live here. Citizens of other EU states are not so lucky. If Cameron was honest about the mess he has made of this country, his immigration problems would evaporate. His own public relations skills have betrayed him.
And worse was to come: “Our plans for a British Bill of Rights are unchanged. We want to get rid of the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.
“We voted in this House of Commons on votes at 16, and we voted against them, so I think we should stick to that position.” This will not please the Scots, where the voting age was lowered for their own referendum on whether to remain in the United Kingdom, and where democracy enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity as a result.
Finally, there’s the elephant in the room. It is unfortunate that Mr Corbyn did not raise the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, one of the “vital trade deals” that Cameron mentioned. In its current form, this would mean control of workers’ rights, working conditions and the quality of products would be transferred from elected parliaments to faceless international corporations. It is the biggest threat to democracy facing us.
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