Richard North, 25/11/2012  

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"Flimflam" is what Booker is calling the arguments in Brussels about our contribution to the EU budget. They are just a sideshow.

But, when you think of it, as Booker says, it is difficult to get too worked up about our net contribution of £8.8 billion a year to the EU budget when last month alone the Government had to borrow another £8.6 billion just to cover its ever-growing deficit.

That aside, the real game in town is the curious new consensus emerging across our political class that, while of course we can't leave the EU, we must "renegotiate" our relationship with it. From David Cameron to Ed Miliband, from the "eurosceptics" of Open Europe to the europhiles of the European Movement, the self-same cry goes up.

The belief that we can repatriate powers we have given away to the EU is a sure sign that whoever voices it hasn't really got a clue as to what the EU is about. The most sacred rule of the "European project", ever since it was launched in 1950, is that once a nation state has handed powers of governance to the centre they can never be given back.

The last thing our European colleagues would be prepared to do at present, when all their attention is focused on driving on to ever greater union in a bid to save the doomed euro, is to discuss Britain's wish to defy that rule by allowing us to opt out of treaty commitments we legally entered into.

We thus need to stay fixed on the Lisbon Treaty, under which there is only one way in which one country can persuade the rest to agree to renegotiation of its relationship with the EU. That is by invoking Article 50 of the treaty. Only then are they legally obliged to enter into such negotiations. But the catch is that Article 50 can only be called into play by a country which first says that it wishes to leave the EU.

This clause impales on an impossible hook that growing band of politicians who say they want renegotiation but don’t want to leave. Without Article 50, they simply cannot get any renegotiation.

But it equally ensnares the "Get Britain Out" eurosceptics who say that all we need to do is repeal the European Communities Act and, with one mighty bound, we will be free. They have no idea how complicated it would be to extricate ourselves from an organisation that has been making our laws for 40 years and to which we are bound by a vast web of other practical entanglements.

Most foolishly of all, they believe that we could leave but continue trading freely with the EU as part of the European Economic Area (EEA), which enjoys access to the Single Market without all the other obligations that go with full membership.

We are only members of the EEA by virtue of belonging to the EU. If we wished to remain part of the Single Market, we would have to make our readmission to the EEA one of the conditions on which we renegotiate our relationship.

Here we come back to the central dilemma: we could only begin to think realistically in these terms by first invoking Article 50 and saying we wish to leave – the one thing that Mr Cameron and the rest of the fashionable consensus could not possibly bring themselves to say.

Without that fateful step, says Booker, all talk of "renegotiation" is idle – as empty as too much else of what we hear our politicians say.


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