The prime objective of David Cameron’s Europe speech was always to placate anti-European critics on his right flank rather than to set out a bold vision in the national interest. And in that sense, his ‘red meat’ pledge of an in/out referendum after 2015 may succeed in sating his own party’s Eurosceptic appetite, at least in the short term. But there are at least three reasons why his strategy is not only mistaken, but risks deeply damaging the national interest.
First, while the ‘repatriationist’ wing of Cameron’s own party may be satisfied with the promise of a renegotiation of as yet undefined policies some time around 2017, this is unlikely to silence the full spectrum of Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party and beyond. As Andrew Grice shrewdly observed in the Independent, “If Cameron announced a referendum tomorrow, they’d complain it wasn’t yesterday.” This is particularly the case for UKIP and their supporters in the Daily Express, who have built their brands on leaving the EU. For them, a referendum conditional on A) a Tory election victory and B) a ‘new settlement,’ at some point in around 4-5 years, will simply not be enough.
Second, the speech is either ignorant or disingenuous about the reality of the EU on several counts. While Cameron rightly talks about the need for a focus on the Single Market, trade deals with major world economies and more flexibility in integration, he is wishing for an EU that already exists. The EU Commission has been pushing member states to complete the Single Market in services and digital products for years. Cameron calls for a council of ministers to deal with the Single Market, but ignores the existing Competitiveness Council, which does just this. On trade deals, the EU recently signed an agreement with South Korea, launched negotiations with Japan, and has its sights on the US. And in terms of flexibility, Britain already has various opt-outs on the euro, border controls, justice, policing and working time rules. The EU also has an in-built mechanism for groups of countries to move ahead with certain laws and for national parliaments to throw out new proposals which impinge on national sovereignty.
Third, and most important of all, the speech does nothing to quash uncertainty about Britain’s position in Europe and on the contrary, risks feeding it. Initial reactions from our European partners are that while they want us to play a full role in the EU, we cannot expect a free ride on the Single Market without playing by the same rules as everyone else. This puts the basic premise of Cameron’s strategy – that we can renegotiate whatever we like and everyone else will agree – in question, and effectively opens the economy to years of uncertainty. It was telling that the pound fell to its lowest level against the dollar in five months while Cameron was actually delivering his speech.
There were certainly things in the speech that pro-Europeans should welcome: a decent defence of the EU’s achievements as a guarantor of peace and freedom, a recognition of its essential role on the world stage and a rejection of the Swiss and Norwegian options. But by gearing the crux of his speech – the referendum promise – to party before country, he does a disservice to the national interest.
* Giles Goodall is a Liberal Democrat candidate for the European Parliament in South East England
* Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.