PM and EU: Statesman or sleepwalker?
by John Humphrys in Commentary, Editor's picks and Margaret Thatcher
Tue January 15, 1:05 p.m. GMT
John Humphrys asks: will Cameron’s speech on the EU this week settle the issue of Europe or provoke political conflict?
It has been a long time coming but David Cameron’s speech on Europe is finally to be delivered. On Friday, the Prime Minister will stand up in Amsterdam and lay out how he thinks Britain should change its relationship with the European Union. But will it settle this incredibly thorny issue for years to come? Or will it usher in a period of political conflict and damaging uncertainty whose outcome no one can know?
Britain’s relationship with Europe has provided headaches for all prime ministers over the last fifty years and for Conservative ones in particular. Harold Macmillan was humiliated when France’s President de Gaulle threw out Britain’s application to join. Edward Heath was never forgiven by many in his party for refusing to take that ‘No’ for an answer and successfully taking us in. Margaret Thatcher lost her premiership in large part because she couldn’t carry her cabinet along with her increasingly outspoken attacks on the way the European Union was heading. And John Major had to fight an ultimately self-destructive battle with the ‘bastards’ on his own backbenches to get the EU’s Maastricht Treaty ratified by the British Parliament. Now it’s David Cameron’s turn.
The Prime Minister has known for a long time that he would have to take the issue by the scruff of its neck. That’s because opinion both within his own party and in the wider electorate has been turning increasingly hostile to the EU, or at least to the current terms of Britain’s membership. He’s also been aware of the mounting pressure for the British people to be given another say on the matter as it is now nearly forty years since the last referendum and none of the vague promises politicians of all parties have made to consult the British people again has ever come to anything.
It is true that Mr Cameron’s government, with the full support of his Liberal Democrat partners, passed a law a couple of years ago that would require a referendum to be held if any EU treaty changes sought to transfer powers from Britain to Brussels. But this has not been enough to satisfy those who think it is time we had a referendum anyway.
Among these, one group is becoming increasingly influential. The United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, which wants Britain to leave the EU and promises voters a referendum on the matter, was once dismissed by the Prime Minister essentially as a fringe party of nutters. But in recent months its poll ratings have soared, turning it into the third most popular party in the country and posing a real threat to the Conservatives’ chances of winning a majority at the next election. It has become an accepted fact among political commentators that in order to see off UKIP’s threat, Mr Cameron would have to offer a referendum of his own.
But for politicians who like to try to control events, a referendum is a notoriously risky thing to hold. They can never be sure that voters will dutifully address the actual matter in hand or whether they will simply seize the opportunity to express their feelings about (and usually against) those who’ve called the referendum in the first place. The politician is then left to pick up the pieces. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Prime Minister’s speech has been so long delayed.
It is pretty clear now, though, what he intends to say because he gave me a broad outline of its contents in an interview on Monday. Mr Cameron said that he is strongly in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the EU but that he is unhappy with many of the current terms of that membership. So he wants to negotiate a “new settlement” which the British people could be “more comfortable with” and then he would seek the “full-hearted consent” of the people for that settlement. He didn’t actually say that this would be through a referendum, but most people have taken him to mean that.
He also said that there was now an ideal opportunity for engaging in this renegotiation because change was afoot anyway. The crisis in the eurozone was “driving a process of change”, requiring those countries inside the eurozone to integrate more of their policies. This would change the whole nature of the EU. Since Britain was not going to join the euro (at least not under his premiership), new arrangements would have to be negotiated anyway. But this was also the reason why he said it would be wrong to have an ‘in/out’ referendum now: the EU was on the verge of major change so there was no point in any referendum before those changes took place.
So what he’s talking about is a referendum after the next election – which is just as well because he would not be able to get the backing of the Lib Dems for one before it. Indeed Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, seems very unpersuaded by Mr Cameron’s case. He told my colleague Justin Webb that it was still far from clear that there would need to be radical treaty changes as a result of what’s going on in the eurozone and that for Britain to start talking about renegotiations, new settlements and referendums now was very risky. It would create uncertainty about Britain’s future in the EU and this would be very damaging to the economy because it might deter potential foreign investors. The same point was made by a group of prominent businessmen last week. The Obama administration also expressed concern about any talk of Britain leaving the EU. Mr Clegg wants to stick to the commitment to have a referendum only when it is proposed that powers should shift to Brussels.
As for Labour, its leader, Ed Miliband, has accused the Prime Minister of “sleepwalking” to the EU exit by pandering to the anti-EU elements in the Conservative Party. Mr Miliband has reaffirmed Labour’s commitment to Europe and, at least for the time being, refuses to commit his party to holding a referendum if it comes to power.
So what exactly does Mr Cameron want to renegotiate? At the moment this is far from clear, though it may become more so after he has spoken in Holland. The government has taken advantage of a provision in the Lisbon Treaty to take back control of crime and policing measures and to renegotiate some specific policies in these areas. Otherwise the actual substance of the negotiations remains unknown. The government is carrying out an ‘audit’ of Britain’s membership of the EU and this will no doubt throw up an agenda. Meanwhile, however, plenty of people are throwing up their own suggestions of what needs to change. The ‘Fresh Start’ group of backbench Tory MPs plans to publish its own list this week, creating new pressures on the government.
But will our European partners be ready to open up negotiations with Britain? There are plenty of European politicians who are horrified by the idea. They say that if Britain wants to unpick existing agreements then everyone else will want to do the same and the whole thing will fall apart. But that, of course, may just be a negotiating ploy itself. Mr Cameron appears to believe that the EU won’t have any choice. For him, the euro has changed everything, not just for Britain but for all our partners in the EU. So everyone will be forced to go back to the negotiating table. Whether he is right, whether Britain will achieve a “new settlement”, or whether we will be shown the exit door, is what we shall discover in the next few years.
What’s your view?
- Do you think the Prime Minister is right to seek a “new settlement” with the EU?
- Do you think his policy of trying to negotiate one is driven by his declared belief that change is inevitable because of the eurozone crisis or because anti-EU forces in Britain are pushing him in this direction?
- What do you think needs changing, if anything, in Britain’s relationship with the EU?
- What do you make of Nick Clegg’s argument that the Prime Minister’s policy is damaging to the economy because it creates uncertainty?
- Is Ed Miliband right or wrong to say Mr Cameron risks sleepwalking to the EU exit?
- Should Labour commit itself to a referendum or not?
- What final outcome do you hope for: Britain achieving a new settlement within the EU, keeping the status quo, or getting out?
- And what do you think the final outcome will be?