After months of prevarication and press speculation, the moment finally arrived at just after eight o’clock this morning. David Cameron gave his big speech on Europe, the one that sets out once and for all Britain’s most significant area of foreign policy, and coincidentally the one that has the most potential to wreck his premiership.
Credit where credit is due (an idea normally against the editorial policy of this blog), unlike some other recent speeches, this one had some real substance. The Prime Minister argued that the current direction of Europe, treaty bound towards “ever closer union”, is wrong, and that the EU should be a loose confederation of states based around the single market.
With this in mind, Cameron intends to re-negotiate key European treaties and ask the British people if they agree with the results of his re-negotiation or if they would prefer to leave the EU all together, in a referendum to be held in 2018. He says that he intends to vote in favour of Britain’s continued EU membership in this referendum. The date is significant, because it falls the other side of the next general election. The way Cameron phrased it, you will only get a referendum on Europe if there is a majority Conservative government after 2015. I personally do not think that Labour, or even the Liberal Democrats, will be able to go into the next election on a platform of denying the public a say, so I suspect that they will match the pledge. Predictions make fools of us all, but I expect this referendum will go ahead whatever the result of the election.
As a rule, referendums tend to back the status quo option, as demonstrated by the AV vote in 2011. As things stand, when this Europe referendum takes place, on the ‘yes’ side will be all three major political parties and most of British business, arguing that leaving the single market will cost millions of jobs. On the ‘no’ side will be Nigel Farage and Bill Cash, looking like golf club bores. It should be an easy win for the yes team, and the Prime Minister will be factoring this in to his calculations.
I want to highlight a huge area of what you might charitably describe as creative ambiguity in the Prime Ministers approach. It is entirely dependent on him being able to successfully re-negotiate the founding treaties of the European Union. I have not come across any evidence which suggests that the other 26 members desire this, and he will need their support if he is to succeed. According to the argument he advanced today, the current terms of EU membership are unacceptable. If he is unable to get new ones, will it still be Conservative policy to vote yes? He very obviously ducked this question when asked it after the speech. It is possible that he is withholding an answer in order to give himself a better negotiating position with the other European leaders, or alternatively he just doesn’t know himself. I can only speculate.
Finally, there is a school of thought, particularly within the Conservative Party, that the referendum pledge set out today is an election winner. I bet it’s not. Europe obsesses right wing politicians like no other subject, but the great British public can hardly contain their indifference. Elections are decided primarily on the economy, immigration and heath, not Europe. As I have pointed out above, the fact that one party promises a referendum makes it highly likely that there will be one whoever wins the general election, so I can’t see the Conservatives winning that election on the back of this pledge alone, although the longer Labour say they will deny the public a vote the more ridiculous they will look. Still, this is the most significant development in British European policy since the Maarsricht Treaty in 1992, and it could theoretically even result in us leaving the EU. It's a big day.