It’s here. The moment we’ve all been waiting for. After months of teasers and trailers in the print and broadcast media, we can now see the full show.
But that’s enough about Les Miserables. Next week David Cameron gives his much hyped speech on Europe.
Cameron thinks he is master of the house and can dictate terms to Europe’s 26 other leaders (soon to be 27), but is he dreaming a dream?
It can’t be an easy job being David Cameron. He’s got eurosceptics behind him, europhobes to the right and he’s stuck in the Cabinet with Eric Pickles. No doubt he wishes he could escape to a castle on a cloud.
Despite all the hype and attention, Cameron has said remarkably little. As he head for the confrontation there are five key questions he needs to answer:
Exactly which powers does he wish to repatriate?
Cameron has been suspiciously vague on this, but some of his backbenchers offer a glimpse of what we might expect. We hear vague references to pulling out of the Social Chapter and specific calls for an opt out of the Working Time Directive. Both would be hugely damaging to millions of workers up and down this country. Currently the Tories can claim public support for some repatriation. I suspect that if workers realised exactly what that means to their jobs, pay and conditions, that support will plummet.
What other elements of our relationship does he wish to change?
Cameron also talks about distancing Britain from other parts of the European Union and a number of his backbenchers have mentioned trade and foreign affairs. The European Commission negotiates trade deals on behalf of EU Member States which have made a significant contribution to EU GDP. The proposed EU-US trade deal alone could add 2% to Europe’s GDP. Does Cameron seriously think the US or others would be interested in such deals with the UK alone were we to leave the world’s largest single market? As for foreign affairs, the Obama administration made clear its view last week when it said that the special relationship depends on a United Kingdom at the heart of Europe. Our voice on the world stage is strengthened by our position in the EU.
When does he plan to hold a referendum?
It is pretty clear that Cameron plans to promise a referendum. I doubt this will do much good with either his backbenchers or his voters, after all he’s promised it before. Nonetheless he must be clear when he plans to hold such a referendum. It is widely believed to be in the next Parliament, but this assumes other EU leaders decide to introduce the treaty changes he relies on as his bargaining chip. Europe doesn’t do anything quickly and now the worst of the crisis seems to be over a new mood of complacency has returned to Europe’s capitals. What if treaty change is put off for the foreseeable future? Will Cameron hold a referendum anyway on our current terms? What if the crisis flares up again, will he hold a referendum in the middle of economic chaos across the continent?
What happens if other leaders say no?
This is the million euro question that no one on the Tory benches seems able or willing to answer. I find it extremely unlikely that Hollande, Merkel or even close Cameron allies such as Mark Rutte in the Netherlands will be remotely inclined to agree to British demands to extricate itself from the responsibilities of the single market while continuing to reap the benefits. Will he hold a referendum anyway? Will he pull us out?
How does he plan to reassure businesses worried about investing in the UK?
While all this is going on over the next few years, businesses are expressing private – and increasingly public – concerns about what this might mean for their future in Britain. 3 million British jobs depend on our membership of the European Union. We have a thriving car manufacturing industry based here because of our access to a single market of 500,000 consumers. Will General Motors be so keen to build their new Astra at the Vauxhall plant in Ellesmere Port in my region if we’re no longer a member of the EU? 2,800 jobs at the plant and thousands in the supply chain would be under threat.
Eric Pickles said something that no doubt Hollande and Merkel would agree with – Britain’s continued membership of the EU won’t come at any price. At the end of the day Cameron may find himself on his own surrounded by empty chairs at empty tables.