When is a treaty not a treaty?
In case you haven’t heard, we’re definitely not getting a new EU treaty.
Making his statement to the Commons after the European Council meeting yesterday, the prime minister was at great pains to emphasise that. The mechanism that will bring 25 of the 27 EU countries together to discuss fiscal issues is only “an agreement”.
Cameron kept repeating the names of previous EU treaties: Nice, Rome, Amsterdam, Lisbon. He said it with such conviction you wonder if he believes if this “agreement” doesn’t have a proper name it doesn’t count. Aside from the wobble about the name, he insisted that this new agreement “doesn’t have the force of EU law” and “if necessary, we will take action, including legal action, if British interests are threatened”.
Clearly, what the PM envisions is that ‘the 25’, as MPs have already begun to term the group of nations who haven’t vetoed this not-a-treaty, will meet to sort out their fiscal problems but their discussions will in no way impinge on any other aspect of the EU – the single market, for instance. They will do this “outside the EU,” he says, and this status outside the union is the what he secured for Britain by using his veto on a new treaty in December.
Ed Miliband put in a strong performance in his response to Cameron’s statement. Aside from the dodgy one-liners (“with this PM a veto is not for life, it’s just for Christmas” isn’t one he should be particularly proud of), there was a forcefulness about his delivery that we haven’t seen since the days of the phone-hacking scandal. Seizing on the weak point of Cameron’s statement, he declared: “‘it talks like a European treaty, it walks like a European treaty. It is a European treaty.”
Cameron attempted to come back at him with a demand to know what Labour would have done in his place, but Ed sidestepped this by appealing to Conservative backbenchers with his concerns about British interests not being represented. An appeal guaranteed to get the likes of Bill Cash and Mark Reckless all worked up.
This scrap all comes down to uncertainty. Cameron is trying to make assurances about the future behaviour of 25 countries who have already proven themselves to be pretty unpredictable. Uncertainty breeds fear. All Miliband had to do to come out on top of this exchange was to remind everyone how we have no way of knowing what ‘the 25’ will do with their new agreement.