One of the things you quickly learn as a first-term, Opposition backbencher is that your influence on how Britain is run is rather limited, but every now and then, you are centre-stage, and this happened to me yesterday at the European Scrutiny Committee’s two and a quarter hour grilling of David “Brains” Miliband, the Foreign Secretary.
Brains lives up to his name at times. He knew he had a bad brief, and tried various tricks to hide it, the sort that we see many times from Labour Ministers – like answering questions that hadn’t been asked, attacking Conservative policies from the 1990s, quibbling over minor details and so on. From the Committee, however, he more than met his match with tough questions from Bill Cash, who is genuinely expert on these matters, and James Clappison, who is one of Parliament’s very best interrogators of ministers. James is dogged and forensic, and was well-prepared.
The problem for Miliband is that nobody – not least the Labour members of the Committee – believes him when he says that the “new” Reform Treaty is quite different to the ill-fated Constitution; that it is a great deal for Britain won by the skills of the New Labour negotiators; and that the controversial clauses either already exist (and therefore shouldn’t be controversial) or simply won’t actually have any impact on the UK (in which case why are they in the Treaty?).
The latest draft of the Treaty further erodes Britain’s position. The crucial opt-ins on justice and home affairs (JHA) are now subject to a five-year transitional period. All of our existing JHA opt-ins will now be subject to determinations by the European Court of Justice. If Britain decides not to opt in at the end of the 5 year period, we are deemed to have opted out of the whole lot, and the rest of the EU can vote – without Britain even being allowed to cast a vote against – that if they have been materially inconvenienced by Britain not being in, then they can extract unlimited financial penalties from this country. They may remain as “opt-ins”, but there could be a very heavy price in not signing up. This is very worrying indeed.
David Miliband greatly angered both me and Bill Cash at one point when the Foreign Secretary told us that thanks to the new Treaty, the British Parliament “would for the first time be able to influence the workings of the European Union”. To my mind, with its huge democratic deficit, the EU should be trying to learn from British parliamentary democracy, not seeking to reduce us to the status of a local council.
In the last half hour of his two and a quarter hour grilling, “Brains” started to lose his way. I had the last question, and asked him with the EU heads of government meeting later this week on the Treaty, which aspects of the current draft of the Treaty he would seek to change or improve for Britain. He admitted that none of the new text had been suggested by the British negotiation team, but that nonetheless, the only change he was looking for was to change the translation of one word from the French original from “shall” to read “shall be able to”. This was a sad testimony to our influence in Europe – changing one word in a 253 page treaty was the limit of our new Foreign Secretary’s ambitions.