Monday, 14 January 2013

Cameron's weakness and Labour's opportunity?: an in/out referendum on the EU

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced through the Downing Street press office that his 'long awaited big speech' on Britiain' s future relationship with the European Union (EU) will be made on Friday 18th January.

This is when he is expected to indicate that after the next election (depending on a Conservative majority I would think) a referendum will be held. The thing to be decided however is, what exactly will it be on?

There are many people in this country who want a straight in/out referendum on our membership of the EU, notably in the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and many in the Conservative Party.

Opinion polls on the question of our relationship appear to show around half of the population would like to withdraw, but polls should always be treated with caution as all they are is a snapshot of opinion at a moment in time.

However, our relationship with the European Union in its various guises over the decades has certainly been a difficult one. Right from when the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee refused to even join the negotiations on the Schuman Plan, which led to the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Confederation.

But it is for the Conservative Party that the issue has proved to be a fraught one, and as former Defence Secretary and leadership contender Michael Portillo once said, "Europe is the curse from which the Tory Party never escapes."

Ever since Harold Macmillan became the first British Prime Minister to attempt to take Britain into the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1961 was met with a French veto, and a repeat occurred in 1967 when the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson also attempted to take the United Kingdom into what was then the club of six.

Eventually it was a Conservative, Edward Heath (who incidentally had spoken up for joining the ECSC in his maiden speech in 1950), who took Britain into the EEC in 1973, but not without a struggle, and opposition across the Conservative and Labour Parties, but eventually 67% of the members endorsed membership.

In the mid-70s the question of our continued membership arose and the then Prime Minister Harold Wilson agreed to a referendum which was held in 1975. The referendum had been pledged in Labour's February 1974 manifesto, and the eventual question was

'Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?

But although the question looks a straight in/out one, Wilson had maintained control of the debate,  and made it about renegotiated terms, and he won it decisively 67%-33%.

Margaret Thatcher's arguments with and about the EC are well known and too many to go into here, and are for another time, although perhaps two particular moments can be highlighted. The signing of the Single European Act in 1987, followed just three years later by her famous 'no, no, no!' at the prospect of even further integration. It was somewhat ironic that this was followed just five weeks later by her resignation as Prime Minister, the issue of Britain's relationship with the EC being the catalyst.

Throughout John Major's Premiership he too had his run-ins with members of his party, but unlike Thatcher who was brought down (ostensibly anyway although there was more to it than that) by the pro-Europeans in her cabinet, it was a small group of anti-EU MPs (including the 'bastards' in his own cabinet) that caused him most grief. This led to him resigning as leader in 1995 and inviting them to 'put up or shut up.' The challenge was accepted, and then Welsh Secretary John Redwood stood against him, being decisively beaten.

The Labour government of Tony Blair was much more enthusiastic about Britain's EU membership and was seen as a much more positive member of the club. Some have argued that all he did was give away too much, including a chunk of the rebate much-loved by the Conservatives after Margaret Thatcher fought so hard for it in the early eighties.

However, it was the Blair government which in 1999, despite his own leanings towards it, that decided that it was not in Britain's interests to  join the Single European Currency. In a further irony, it has been argued that the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty (1992) had already given away much of Britain's 'sovereignty.'

Ever since David Cameron became Prime Minister he has tried to tread a fine line between the various versions of Euroscepticism  amongst his MPs. He has attempted to face both ways, and appear as though he is standing up to the other principle European leader, Angela Merkel of Germany and (then President) Nicholas Sarkozy of France.

However this led to confusion as he claimed to have vetoed a treaty when nothing of the sort had happened, and he was made to look very foolish as opposition and many of his own backbenchers ridiculed him in the House.

More recently negotiations over the new EU budget caused Mr Cameron other problems and the defeat for the government's official line of insisting on a real terms freeze in the EU budget, by an unholy alliance of fifty-one Tory backbench MPs and the Labour Party in favour of calling for a cut in the budget.

The Labour Party have been accused of rank opportunism over this, although in 2007 Ed Balls wrote a pamphlet for the Centre for European Reform in which he called for many reforms in the European Union, especially the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and budget.

So now we come once again to the question of what is the United Kingdom's future relationship with the European Union, and whether our future lays inside or out. This isn't the first time this has happened in this Parliament, with a debate on whether there should be a referendum in October 2011 following a petition. I have written about that debate here and perhaps David Cameron's biggest problem is that his position hasn't moved on one iota.

He is still trying to face both ways on the debate and it's not clear exactly what it is he's going to be asking for. It seems likely he will announce plans for a referendum after 2015, but we can't be sure as to what will be the terms.

Mr Cameron has spoken vaguely of 'fresh settlements' and 'seeking consent' and will be setting "out his views on the future of the European Union, how it needs to develop and how Britain's relationship with it needs to develop."

But this language if repeated in his speech is unlikely to quell dissent within his party, as it appears to fall far short of the straight in/out question many want. Indeed, I would prefer that even though I would be working for an 'in' vote, because at least the terms of the argument would be clear.

Ed Miliband has accused Mr Cameron of 'sleep-walking' the UK out of the EU, and this is true. The irony is that both David Cameron and the Chancellor George Osborne are in favour of maintaining Britain's membership, but outside of the occasional reference, he hasn't really laid out why he does.

In fact I do think Mr Cameron's weakness lies in trying this 'all things to all men' strategy, and they seldom end well. He should state his own position clearly and stick to it. Whatever the British public might think of particular politicians, they admire those prepared to state clearly what they believe, even if they disagree.

To me David Cameron sounds like he wishes to try and copy Harold Wilson, but he lacks that old stager's wiliness, honed by years in Parliament having first been elected in 1945, and taking nearly twenty
years and experience in many portfolios before becoming leader and Prime Minister. Mr Cameron may have spent time in PR and as an adviser, but he lacks real political guile (perhaps an accusation that could be made of many modern politicians), and therefore makes too many poor judgements.

Mr Cameron has always said he wants to 'repatriate' some powers from the EU, but is reluctant to be clear as to what he wants, and there is some debate as to what he can really get. This is where he has boxed himself into a corner and is in danger of 'sleep-walking' the UK out.

If he is unable to get what he wants, he has given himself little option but to offer a straight in/out referendum, but this time handing control of the debate to those wishing to withdraw. Very few people are completely happy with the way the EU runs itself, and the arguments are over what changes can and should be made to its institutions and legislation. But the way David Cameron is conducting himself in this debate just weakens his position, and by extension  of those who wish to remain inside but seek fundamental changes.

So from my own point of view I'd like to see the Labour Party seize the initiative here, state that if we win the next election we will hold a referendum, and that we would be fighting to stay within the Union. This does carry risks, but perhaps the time has come to take one and lay this ghost to rest for the foreseeable future.

It would also enable the pro-EU supporters to set the terms of the referendum and the debate, and hopefully, unlike the disastrous AV referendum of 2011, be based on facts and interpretation of what is in Britain's interests.

The debates will be heated, with politicians, business leaders and others putting their side of the arguments, but it would be with a clear objective in mind, in or out. David Cameron is in danger of just muddying the waters of debate, and as Ed Miliband has accused him, of 'sleep-walking us out of the EU,'not because he doesn't want to stay in but because he didn't have the courage to stand up for what he really believes.

As I've said, I would campaign to stay within the European Union, which I believe politically, trade and for business reasons in the United Kingdom's interests. However, it is pointless going into details as to why here, and that can be left for a referendum itself, if it ever happens.

 As to whether a referendum would heal the enduring sore within the Conservative Party is doubtful, because the differences within the party go far deeper than whether we stay in or leave the European Union, there are fundamental disagreements over what being a Conservative is which will just continue.



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