On Friday David Cameron will make his big speech on Europe. There is only one thing now which will satisfy the Eurosceptics: a firm promise – and not just a ‘cast-iron guarantee’ – for a referendum on Europe.
The speech – which must address the challenge of UKIP, mainly to the Tories – comes as the UK marks 40 years’ of membership of what is now the European Union. Lord Ashcroft’s recent polling of 20,000 Britons suggests that it is not Europe, but immigration which is encouraging Conservatives to switch to UKIP. However, the next national electoral challenge will be the European Elections in 2014. In such a poll, held under proportional representation, UKIP’s simple ‘EU out’ message gained them 16.5 percent of the vote in 2009.
Many Eurosceptics say to me: ‘we joined the Common Market and now it is a European Union’. I reply, as a life-long pro-European, that much has changed since we joined, and Brussels has adjusted accordingly. Indeed, its leading role in the change from a continent divided by the Iron Curtain to a ‘Europe whole and free’ is the reason the Oslo committee awarded the EU the Nobel Peace Prize last month.
I am convinced that rising Euroscepticism in Britain is largely caused by the economic crisis, which many blame on the EU. This is wrong, because it was the bankers and national governments who created the disaster and broke the Euro rules, not Brussels.
Last autumn Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski appealed openly to British Eurosceptics:
As a Thatcherite free-marketeer, I have no doubt being in Europe is good for Britain.
Now one of the most potent and vigorous pro-Europeans, Sikorski said:
But please don’t expect us to help you to wreck or paralyse the EU. Don’t underestimate our determination not to return to the politics of the 20th century. You were not occupied. Most of us on the Continent were. We’ll do almost anything to prevent it happening again. Europe’s leaders will step up integration to make the euro work. We believe the euro will survive, because it is in members’ interests for it to survive.
Indeed, at a pre-Christmas summit in Brussels, EU leaders did agree to step up integration to make the Euro work better. In particular they gave the European Central Bank supervisory powers over the EU’s larger banks. This coincided with Standard and Poors’ uprating of Greece by six points and the payment of an important tranche of EU aid to Athens.
While the present package of financial reforms agreed by the EU recently do not in themselves require treaty change, the expectation is that the next stage of EU integration will be on the cards by 2015, backed by a new treaty.
The question is, will Cameron continue to kick the European can down the road, or he will finally make his position clear? I, for one, am ready for the fight, not least because one in ten jobs in Yorkshire & Humber depend on our EU membership.
* Edward McMillan-Scott (Yorkshire & Humber, Liberal Democrat) is Vice-President of the European Parliament for Democracy and Human Rights. He founded the EU's €150 million Democracy and Human Rights Instrument (EIDHR). He co-chairs the Brussels-based network (HRDN) of more than 40 NGOs active in the field.