Cameron’s EU speech: a fraud and a gamble

January 26, 2013 2:33 pm

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.

  • http://twitter.com/chrisr56 Chris Reid

    If labour do not offer a referendum they will lose the next election, simple. people want a vote on our membership of the E.U The festering sore of the E.U needs lancing once and for all. even if the populace do not know or understand the whole story. It is time for the E.U to justify it’s existence. It is seen as the remote controller simply forcing its laws and changes on Britain whether we like it or not. This is a much different animal than the common market we signed up to. There is an old saying that good fences make good neighbours.

  • Quiet_Sceptic

    Of course it would be easier to make the case against a referendum if the UK government had secured some form of democratic endorsement of our on-going membership since the last referendum in 1975. Ireland regularly holds referendums to secure popular consent to EU treaty changes.

    There also seems to a slightly anti-democratic thread to some of the opposition to referendums. The idea that a referendum shouldn’t be held because it could damage UK economic interest seems a very dangerous logic, presumably by the same token the Scots should not be allowed a vote on independence. It would suggest that democracy should be curtailed whenever it risks some possible economic impact or in cases where the populous might vote against what someone or groups deems their best interest.

    • brianbarder

      I accept that opposition to a referendum is always vulnerable to the accusation of being anti-democratic and élitist. But this mistakes our representative form of democracy for a plebiscitory one, which has no place in our system, and which would carry real risks and penalties if it did. We elect our rulers to make decisions on the basis of their own best judgements; if they get it wrong, they pay the price at the next general election (as well as in parliamentary and media criticism, poor opinion poll ratings, losses in by-elections, etc., between general elections). The exceptions are when great constitutional decisions have to be made, when the government of the day has a duty to lay out clearly the likely consequences of the various options on offer, and to give a clear lead by recommending the option it deems most advantageous or least damaging. That is not the situation now. No decision on UK membership of the EU needs to be made now, and certainly not until the shape of the reformed Eurozone and the consequential changes in relations between Eurozone members and non-members have been worked out and made known (which may take many more than the five years assumed by Mr Cameron), and perhaps not even then. No-one can know now what kind of decisions affecting UK membership of a changed EU will need to be taken in five, seven or ten years’ time, or whether any such decisions are likely to be so grave in their consequences as to justify a referendum. To promise a referendum now is the height of opportunist irresponsibility.

      If lesser issues had had to be submitted for popular decision by referendum, we would still be hanging children for stealing bread, male homosexual practices would still be an imprisonable offence, we would probably still be fighting a savage war to try to prevent Indian independence, and indeed it’s quite possible that Britain would have done a deal with Hitlerite fascism (i.e. surrendered) in 1941 or earlier. Government has a normative role, a duty to +lead+ public opinion and when necessary to persuade it to change, not merely to follow the dictates of focus groups and opinion polls.

      Besides, the referendum is a blunt instrument, for use only on the most momentous occasions of major constitutional change. A referendum’s outcome depends crucially on the wording of the questions put; it puts huge power in the hands of media tycoons and newspaper proprietors, many of them with axes to grind and concealed political and financial agendas to pursue; the issues at stake may be too complex and technical to enable most voters to make a rational, fact-based choice, even after the most extensive campaign of public explanation; and there’s a well-known tendency for people to use a referendum to register a vote against the government of the day, without regard to the issues to be decided by the referendum. It’s not to be undertaken when it’s not necessary.

      • Quiet_Sceptic

        So on the basis that the electorate should only be consulted on major constitutional changes, if major changes are made incrementally spread over many years (or treaties) and not in a single step, you’d argue that the electorate should never get a vote?

        That a referendum on one proposition provides democratic legitimacy to anything if the end result is achieved in incremental steps?

        • brianbarder

          The idea of holding referendums on virtually everything, at every step of a slowly evolving process, however important in the aggregate, is not only horrendous — it would make the country ungovernable — but also totally foreign to our entire parliamentary tradition. Just making major tax decisions subject to approval or rejection by plebiscite has literally bankrupted California and made it impossible to maintain state funding for even the most basic state services.

          There is certainly an arguable case for holding referendums on issues that would involve changes to the entrenched clauses of a written constitution, if we had one, although there are other alternative ways to ensure that fundamental decisions affecting the basic elements of the constitution may not be casually amended by a temporary majority in parliament without broad public approval. For the reasons described in my earlier comment, referendums are blunt instruments whose results tend to be unpredictable and unrelated to the merits or demerits of the issues they decide. They are best avoided, despite noisy campaigns for them by the media which like to persuade us that they represent public opinion. Actually recent polls suggest that Europe is a low priority in most people’s concerns and turnout for an in-or-out referendum would probably be very low.

          • Quiet_Sceptic

            I think we need to keep things in proportion, we are talking about a second referendum after nearly 40 years membership. 40 years between referendums is hardly descent into some form of ungovernable anarchy. This is a long way from government by plebiscite.

            When you think that the youngest voters in the 1975 referendum are now in their mid 50s, that is a sizeable proportion of the population which has never had any direct vote on EU membership.

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