British Prime Minister David Cameron this morning delivered his heavily anticipated speech on the UK’s future relationship with the European Union. Mr Cameron pledged that, should his Conservative party be returned to power in the 2015 general election, he would seek to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership, before holding a referendum that would give the British people the choice of staying in the EU on the new terms, or leaving entirely.
It’s long past time the British people were given a say on the issue. When two-thirds of voters opted to remain in the European Economic Community, as it was then called, back in 1975, the relationship was purely a trading one, based on the European “single market” (that referendum was held by a Labour government, after Tory Prime Minister Edward Heath had taken Britain into the EEC in 1973 without consulting the electorate).
Since then the EU has expanded, appropriating more and more power from national parliaments, particularly in the areas of business regulation and economic policy. There’s also been a relentless drive, led by Germany and France, towards greater fiscal and political union – a process that accelerated with the creation of the European single currency a decade ago, and which has been given greater, rather than less, impetus by the economic turmoil currently engulfing the continent (the solution to every problem confronting Europe is, its citizens are frequently told, “more Europe”).
Reaction to the speech suggests that Cameron may, for now, have succeeded in uniting his party, which has for years been beset by quarrelling between supporters of the EU and “euroskeptics.” But in other respects he’s kicked the can down the road; today’s speech was short on specifics (exactly which powers Cameron would seek to repatriate, for example), and several questions remain unanswered; among them, whether Cameron would himself campaign to leave the EU were he not to get everything he wanted from negotiations.
Cameron’s most pressing concern, however, is to retain power in 2015, and preferably without being bound into a coalition with the left-of-center Liberal Democrats, as he has been for the past two-and-a-half years. To that end he needs to neutralize the threat posed by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), which has positioned itself to the right of the Tories on the related issues of Europe and immigration (in a little under a year from now a new wave of economic migrants, from Romania and Bulgaria, is due to descend on Britain, taking advantage of EU “freedom of movement” laws).