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).
UKIP is reckoned to have cost the Tories around 20 parliamentary seats at the last general election, and its strong showing in recent special elections suggests it could be an even bigger threat in 2015. Cameron may today have done enough to win back much of the support he’s lost to UKIP, although its leaders are insisting that they’ll continue to campaign for a straightforward exit from the EU, and claim that Cameron will backtrack on his commitments if he’s re-elected.
Cameron’s announcement has also put the pro-EU Labour party on the back foot. Labour’s cynically opportunist leader, Ed Miliband, has for the last couple of years sought to exploit Tory divisions over Europe while refusing to outline his own party’s position. He has, however, said in the past that he’s against a referendum, and might now be forced into a humiliating U-turn in a bid to steal Cameron’s thunder.
European leaders, meanwhile, are desperate to head off any British renegotiation, fearing that other countries would follow suit – which would spell the end for their grandiose plans for “ever-closer union.” They’ve warned Britain that it cannot “cherry pick” the terms of its EU membership, and insist the UK must be “all in or all out.” A sign of their desperation is the fact that they’re citing President Obama’s eagerness for Britain to remain in the EU as some kind of deal-breaker.
For all their bluster, however, Europe needs Britain rather more than Britain needs Europe. The value of British exports to the eurozone is falling steadily, even as the UK increases trade with the rest of the world, and Europe sells rather more to Britain that it sells to Europe. It may turn out to be a matter of who blinks first.
There’s not much point in speculating on the details of the proposed negotiations, or the outcome of a referendum, before the 2015 election (as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes in the Telegraph, given the ongoing eurozone crisis it’s possible that a referendum on Britain’s future may not even be necessary). But if the UK’s modest recovery from recession continues (unemployment fell again today, while it continues to hit record highs in the eurozone), the Conservatives’ position as the only party offering the British people a say on Europe will put them in a strong position to win an outright majority.
Then the fun will really begin.