It is sometimes instructive to look back on one’s work, to see how any predictions worked out. This time last year, I was writing about the announcement of the Review of Competences and wondering about where it would lead.
The first batch of reports has now been released and it’s fair to say that much that was foreseen has come to pass.
Importantly, the FCO’s position – that the Review was not about making value judgments on EU membership, but about mapping the extent and nature of EU competences in various policy areas – has been consistently overlooked by all interested parties. Of all the comment so far this week, only the BBC’s James Langdale seems to have remembered this aspect of it, even if one still detects a note of frustration about this.
Just as importantly, all those with skin in the game of EU membership have engaged in much selective reading.
Sceptics have variously pounced on the negative elements in the reports, or denounced the process as ‘Sir Humphreys’ pandering to Brussels: indeed, Douglas Carswell went so far as to say it proved that UKREP needed ‘taking apart’ if it were to have any chance in a renegotiation. If that sounded a bit like getting one’s excuses in before the fact, then that should not particularly surprise, since many withdrawalists have a rather fatalistic worldview and sense that everyone is against them. The irony that the same people often talk about having the weight of public opinion behind them is an aside at this point.
Likewise, pro-EU voices have also talked up the positives, or questioned why the Review hasn’t done more. Andrew Duff is typical here, when he asked on Twitter why it had failed ‘to argue the merits of #CCCTB [Common Consolidated Corporate Tax Base] one way or another.’ Again, this reflects a desire for the Review to be a tool of other agendas.
To claim any great foresight on this would be too much: it was always clear that this was how the Review would proceed, and will proceed as it moves through the next two tranches of more sensitive policy areas.
It would also be disingenuous for me to claim impartiality in this either, since my pro-membership position leads me to dwell more on the general impression from the first reports that there is a ‘broadly appropriate’ balance between EU and national competence than on the various issues that are identified. Indeed, as I’ve argued before, membership will necessarily come with costs as well as benefits and we just need to be a bit mature in our political debate about acknowledging that reality.
What can be agreed upon – I hope – this that the Review has started to shine a light into the practical operation of the EU within a national context: we might not agree on what we can see or on what it ‘means’, but we can still see something more than we could. As all good social scientists will tell you, without evidence you can’t do anything at all.
Dr Simon Usherwood is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Politics, University of Surrey.