Opinion: Cameron is wishing for an EU that already exists

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.

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12 Comments

  • This piece reminds me that the pro-European case is one grounded in facts and reality

  • Giles: The mistake you and others persistently make, is thinking that the EU is some kind of conduit, that all trade, decision making and sovereignty must go through.
    It isn’t.
    More importantly, why are you, and Liberal Democrats petrified by democracy?

  • Liberal Eye 25th Jan '13 - 6:07pm

    Golem XIV has a post up that bears directly on this. Well worth a read.

    http://www.golemxiv.co.uk/2013/01/sovereignty-betrayals-and-lies/

  • Giles Goodall 25th Jan '13 - 10:47pm

    @John Dunn

    Of course the EU should not take all decisions or govern all policies, it is simply one mechanism for taking decisions over some matters where its member states consider that is useful and efficient: the EU’s internal market, external trade, and environmental protection are obvious areas. And why on earth should I be scared of democracy? I am myself standing as a candidate for the European elections: a national (and EU-wide) election every five years where all voters have a say over how Europe’s run!

    @jedibeeftrix:

    There is a mechanism to agree legislation among those member states who wish to on a certain issue, such as the financial transaction tax or cross-border divorces. There is also a mechanism to repeal legislation if the co-legislators (EU member governments and the European Parliament) so decide. The EU also has a smart regulation programme to review all legislation and reduce and simplify it. The Commission has made proposals reducing the overall administrative burden of EU rules by 33% since 2008.

    On the subsidiarity check, national parliaments can indeed force a review or withdrawal of any proposal they think oversteps the mark as long as one third of them show a ‘yellow card’ and they do it within 8 weeks of getting the proposal. This has already happened once, when the Commission withdrew a proposal on collective action in the internal market last year. Of course governments can still reject a proposal in Council during the legislative process subsequently too (depending indeed on whether they need a blocking minority under QMV or use a veto in some policy areas).

  • Your link says that national parliaments have “the right to express objections” to EU legislation that they believe to infringe their sovereignty, which is a very long way indeed from the right to reject such legislation.

  • Giles: you say “And why on earth should I be scared of democracy? I am myself standing as a candidate for the European elections”
    You know very well that my comment was directed to the fear of an in/out referendum by the LibDems. Indeed my suggestion that LD’s are petrified is mild in comparison to Nick Clegg who (once) believed it to be cowardly.
    It’s sad that the in/out referendum,(if it ever arrives!), will be overshadowed by the sound of kicking and screaming by Liberal Democrats(?), determined to ensure that voters never get to the ballot box over this very important issue.

  • Giles Goodall 26th Jan '13 - 5:01pm

    @Mike Scott

    As I explained in my comment above, they can express objections which of course need to be justified, and if sufficient numbers do so, the institution proposing the legislation (usually the Commission) has to withdraw or review it. This is effectively a right to reject. That is not to say that the mechanism is perfect or cannot be further improved, it was only introduced with the Lisbon Treaty so is still relatively new.

    @John Dunn:

    Lib Dems are not petrified by a referendum, on the contrary, the party has already introduced legislation while in government requiring a referendum on any future transfer of sovereignty to the EU. And as I said, voters have the chance to express themselves on how the EU is run every five years in a national election for the European Parliament. The Lib Dems have consistently pushed for a greater role for both European and national parliaments in EU decision-making.

  • Liberal Eye 27th Jan '13 - 7:48pm

    @ Jedibeeftrix

    You start you second comment on this thread with a quote from the link I suggested was worth reading but left out the second half of the sentence. Here it is with the ommission in bold.

  • Liberal Eye 27th Jan '13 - 7:53pm

    Sorry for the break in transmission – I hit the wrong key!

    This is about advancing and achieving a familiar free-market agenda via undermining those powers which the ‘Free-market’ agenda does not like, like labour laws and rights, and leaving safely remote from sovereign, democratic control those things it does like.

    Golem is not attacking the free market but only a lopsided view of it that gives rights and security to capital but not to people. That seems to me a very fair assessment of where teh Tories and especially UKIP are coming from.

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