David Cameron’s EU speech on January 23rd signalled a reversal of his position on a referendum: formerly, he had promised a referendum just to approve or reject the changes he hopes to make in Britain’s relationship with the EU. Now he promises the in-or-out referendum demanded by his Europhobic wing, and UKIP. At a stroke this brings the head-banging Europhobes into the British political mainstream. Clearly he aims to outflank UKIP, to appease his back-bench Europhobes and the Europhobic media, and to create an illusion of party unity. He also hopes to depict Labour as afraid to let the people decide on Britain’s future in the EU, making the 2015 election a choice between an EU referendum and no referendum. Britain’s national interests don’t come into it.
The speech is a fraud. Its logical implications contradict the reality. In his peroration, Cameron powerfully set out the case for Britain remaining in the EU. Cameron knows that to leave the EU would catastrophically damage British interests, whatever changes he manages to make in our terms of membership. He plans to emulate Harold Wilson’s tactics in 1975 when Wilson went through the motions of “renegotiating” the terms of Britain’s membership of the EEC. A referendum on the renegotiation then approved Britain’s continued membership by 2 to 1. But in 1975 Wilson could reasonably accurately predict the referendum result that he wanted; Cameron cannot possibly know now how a referendum in five years’ time would go. Everything would depend on how the EU evolves between now and then. Radical change is certain, not because of British sabre-rattling but because of the measures necessary to save the Euro, and the consequent need for a new relationship between those in the Eurozone and those outside it. There will be ample opportunities during the negotiation of these changes to propose reforms of any unsatisfactory aspects of the EU. It’s unnecessary for Cameron to make a drama of this prospect, which will arise without any need for British threats. If there’s any proposal to transfer powers from Britain to the EU, Britain will anyway have to hold a referendum on them under a UK law of 2011 accepted by all three main political parties.
The fraud is the pretence that Cameron favours Britain’s exit from the EU unless he secures various ill-defined concessions and that if he has not secured them by 2018, he will campaign for Britain to leave the EU – the clear implication of his EU speech, which he refuses to acknowledge. The gamble is the promise of an in-or-out referendum in five years’ time, whose result is completely unpredictable now and could well be disastrous for Britain. Any gain for Britain from the concessions that Cameron seeks cannot possibly be sufficiently significant to determine whether or not Britain stays in the EU. (The gamble also recklessly disregards its likely effects on the Scottish independence referendum next year, making a vote for Scottish secession more likely.)
Labour now has a potentially difficult task: to make the case against the repatriation of the powers which Cameron and the Europhobes want to retrieve from Europe, by demonstrating that subjects such as the environment and crime prevention are best handled at the European level, not by Britain opting out of EU collective action (changes in the European arrest warrant procedures may be desirable, but not its abolition or a UK opt-out), and that there is no justification for Cameron’s demand for an opt-out from the working hours directive and other EU regulations that protect the basic rights of employees throughout Europe: e.g. the regulations that prevent employers sacking their workers without explanation. This Tory ambition is exploitative and reactionary. Labour should support those in Europe who will resist any such opt-out for Britain on grounds of giving one member state an unfair competitive advantage over the rest, as well as on general grounds of workers’ basic rights.
Labour now needs to sustain its opposition to an in-or-out referendum five years hence or at any other time. To predict that in five years’ time changes will have occurred in the EU so significant as to require a referendum is absurd. The decision on a referendum can only sensibly be taken in the light of circumstances at the time. Meanwhile, the legal requirement for a referendum whenever it’s proposed to transfer further powers from Britain to Europe is more than enough to allay Europhobic terrors. Labour can perfectly well stick on this position, while exposing Cameron’s reckless promise as motivated purely by party political considerations and not by any regard for the national interest.
It’s widely forgotten that in December 2011 Mr Cameron returned from a Brussels summit boasting that he had bravely defended British interests by vetoing an EU treaty, not because he objected to it but because his EU partners had refused to satisfy his conditions for not vetoing it. Actually he had not vetoed a treaty at all: no treaty existed. He had merely tried to prevent our EU partners from using EU resources to negotiate a treaty to impose greater discipline on the Eurozone. The sole result of this attempted blackmail was virtually to exclude Britain from any say in the negotiations on the new treaty. (The shameful tale is more fully told in a blog post here.) If that episode accurately reflects Mr Cameron’s negotiating skills and his willingness subsequently to misrepresent what he has done, Labour should have no great difficulty in exposing the fraud, recklessness and ineptitude of the new Tory strategy for Europe, and the reactionary character of its real aims.