Cameron on Europe: right, wrong or … political?

John Rentoul

cambb 300x200 Cameron on Europe: right, wrong or ... political?We Sunday columnists are divided over the Prime Minister’s speech on the European Union.

Matthew d’Ancona says David Cameron got it right and it was all part of the grand modernising plan. Andrew Rawnsley says it was “a terrible mistake, quite possibly the fatal error of his premiership”. And I am somewhere in between, saying that he made a historic decision, under short-term pressures but informed by conviction, which will serve him and the country well enough, although there are some rather obvious problems ahead.

I agree with d’Ancona that recalling that Cameron warned his party to stop “banging on about Europe” in 2006 fails to prove that he is the hopelessly inconsistent victim of forces in his own bonkers party. The euro crisis since 2008 means that banging on about the EU cannot be avoided.

But I agree with Rawnsley that Cameron’s speech was “proclaiming a policy he never originally intended”. I think d’Ancona is wrong to imply that Cameron intended an in-out referendum all along. He says, “It was also clear that the matter would have to be settled by referendum,” but I think that Cameron was genuinely opposed to an in-out referendum 15 months ago, which was why, as I say, he “divided his party, causing 81 Tory MPs to vote against him on precisely that question”.

It was only when he started to think things through that he realised that a referendum offering a choice between the status quo and some new arrangement would not work.

You can see why that didn’t dawn on him earlier. As d’Ancona points out, his position on the Lisbon Treaty was his starting point. That, and the “referendum lock”, which is Coalition policy in the European Union Act 2011, assume that a referendum is triggered by further powers being passed to Brussels. This implies, in turn, a referendum on the passing of those powers, which, if lost, means that the status quo prevails.

But it was becoming obvious in October that this was not a sustainable position. The argument for renegotiating the terms of British membership – and for “banging on about Europe” again – was that the EU was changing fundamentally in response to the euro crisis. The status quo was, therefore, not an option, and for once this was not a meaningless cliché.

At some point late last year Cameron realised, and I think he was right, that the European crisis makes a referendum in the UK highly likely at some point in the next decade; that it would have to be an “in-out” one; and that he should take the tactical advantage of promising it first.

The argument I was trying to make in The Independent on Sunday today was that no one knows quite what is going to happen. My good colleague Hamish McRae thinks that the European Central Bank may have done enough to hold the euro together for another four or five years, but at quite a social cost in Spain and Italy, let alone Greece.

But the things about which no one knows will happen. All a politician such as Cameron can do is try to meet them from a position of strength. The details of his speech – why a deadline for the referendum of the first half of the next parliament? – matter less than the two big themes: “standing up for Britain” and “trust the people”.

On those, Cameron is in the right and Ed Miliband is in trouble.

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  • Junius

    ‘…Cameron is in the right and Ed Miliband is in trouble.’

    The first Ipsos Mori Issues Index for 2013 is out, and there is a hundred per cent increase in the number of voters who think Europe (Europe/EU/euro/Common Market) is the most important issue facing Britain today – two in one hundred, to be exact.

    Add those who think Europe ranks among other important issues facing Britain today, and there is no change over the December Index at six in one hundred.

    Somehow, I do not think Mr Miliband is going to lose any sleep over these figures. But I am not a distinguished visiting professor teaching contemporary history, so what do I know?

  • greggf

    Miliband will win few votes by avoiding – even evading – a referendum on European issues, irrespective of the interpretation of polling Defoe.
    It doesn’t need a professor of contemporary history to tell you that – pop into your local!

  • Junius

    Ed Miliband does not need to win any more support than he has at present. Weekend polls, those conducted after David Cameron’s EU speech, show Labour’s support rock-solid. The surge to the Tories has come at the expense of UKIP and other minor parties.

    Your local must be located in cloud-cuckoo land. No-one is talking about the EU outside the Westminster village and that cyberspace Europhobe laager, the Telegraph blogs.

  • greggf

    “…..was that the EU was changing fundamentally in response to the euro crisis.”

    And Cameron’s veto in December 2011 probably helped determine the direction to a Fiscal Union for eurozone members. Which may have encouraged him to believe he could reform the EU itself, or what’s left of it after the FU takes shape.

    The fate of the Euro is hardly in question. Greece and some others may perceive they might do better by following Iceland’s economic example, but that would surely strengthen the Euro.

    For Britain the issues must be, subject to the Conservatives winning in 2015: can Cameron achieve reform of the EU, and may any reforms be enough to win a referendum?
    Miliband seems to want to continue Labour’s bad habit of avoiding referendums on European issues – which is beginning to look like evasion.

  • greggf

    Oh very droll Defoe – but there’s no need to repeat yourself.

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