On ConsevativeHome.com I posed this question for Nick Herbert MP, the new Shadow Secretary of State for Justice. Perhaps not absolutely within his jurisdiction, but given the importance of this issue, I feel free to put it to all and sundry. This is his reply and this is my response to that:

3. Concerning the repatriation of powers from Brussels, can you explain what the Plan ‘B’ is for when, as I believe will happen inevitably, Brussels says ‘no’ to any such thing? Will you simply throw up your hands and say “What a shame!” or will you then take matters further down the route of disengagement? Or is there some other cunning plan?

I don’t think it’s sensible to begin a negotiation on the presumption that it will fail. If it’s ok to quote a Frenchman who isn’t a politician, I recommend Raymond Blanc’s advice: ‘I’ve never been able to contemplate failure. Success is everything.’

With great respect, I beg to differ. Whilst it is commendable to approach such negotiations in a spirit of optimism, in order to persuade the electorate that these are credible policies, they must be convinced that all contingencies have been considered and that a strategy exists for each eventuality. And in this case I submit that there must be a very considerable likelihood of complete refusal by the EU to repatriate any powers. In the absence of a plan for that eventuality, I fear that the electorate will believe that this policy has no teeth and is doomed to end in failure

Under the ‘deal’ (sic) that the Government negotiated in 2005 the UK is going to be paying 10.5 billion pounds a year into the EU. In fact we are the second biggest donor to the EU budget and one of only two serious military powers in Europe. If you had a government with any kind of backbone that should give us huge leverage … but at the moment it doesn’t because the Government will never say no to anything in the EU because it is worried about losing ‘influence’.

I do not believe that it is credible to rely on our status as a net contributor as being a means of leverage upon the EU. The implication of using it is that if the EU does not do as we ask, then we will cease to be a net contributor, which in turn will require us to renegotiate our payments to the EU: we have seen with the partial surrender by Vanity Blair and The Town Rat Catcher of Margaret Thatcher’s hard-won rebate that the EU wants us to pay more not less. They are simply not going to play that game. The other possible implication is that we will cease to be a contributor of any kind, i.e. leave the EU. Since that it explicitly NOT Conservative policy, I discount it from consideration.

As to the second suggestion, that the fact of our being one of only two serious military powers in Europe, I am not quite sure how that might impact on the decision of the EU whether or not to repatriate powers to the UK. If we said we would occupy the Rhineland if we don’t get our way, I can see it as having an impact, though not the one intended.

In reality having influence is about arguing for what you want and having the guts to say ‘no’ to proposals you don’t want. But at present the Government isn’t even making the arguments for the kind of Europe we want. According to the Swedish trade minister, behind closed doors Britain never speaks up against the protectionists. I find that pretty contemptible.

That may well be right: but what Nick Herbert refers to are “proposals you don’t want”, surely meaning proposals as to future laws and powers. Influence may or may not deflect such proposals. In my question I am talking about powers which have already been negotiated away, by both Labour and Conservative governments, and which the EU can simply say have been the subject of previous agreement by HMG and that is an end to it. Of course it is possible that they will turn around and say: “Sure, you and you alone can have these powers back”, just as it is possible that I will find a polar bear outside in the garden tomorrow. The reality is that the EU will not, as I have said before on this blog, countenance such a thing because they know full well that the very next day there will be a queue at the door of the other 26 members asking for this or that power they want back to be repatriated. For this reason, whatever “influence” we might have, it is simply not going to happen.

I thank Nick Herbert for his courteous answers to this and my other two questions (which were much more anodyne). But on this questionI have to say that, whilst I am a supporter of the Conservative Party and want it to win the next election, (notwithstanding any requirement to hug a hoodie or love Polly Toynbee, for which they can cheerfully whistle!), on Europe, I am afraid, that this is a matter of principle upon which I am not prepared to bend or compromise.

Our policy on our future dealings with the EU, of trying to persuade them to repatriate powers, simply lacks credibility in the absence of any plan for the eventuality of a refusal, which plan can only realistically be complete disengagement. If they will not give us our country back, we shall have to take it back. And if that means we leave, so be it.

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