The Independent View: Cameron’s European vision and the Liberal Democrat opportunity

Not sallying forth to Amsterdam, but in the more functional surroundings of Bloomberg Europe in London, David Cameron has finally given forth his vision for the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Despite the context of the speech as a necessary manoeuvre to shore up support for Cameron from his hardline eurosceptic backbenchers and head off a UKIP challenge, the prime minister clearly made a great effort to ensure he sounded reasonable and moderate. Who could disagree with a vision of a more efficient, effective and accountable EU?

In this, Cameron made an astute address, in terms of his domestic political audience and short-term political goals. However, it is once the implications of the speech are thought through that problems start to arise, mostly with the issue of ‘renegotiation’. What prospect is there for a new settlement on the EU being ironed out in just two years, from the onset of a theoretical Conservative majority in 2015 to a referendum in 2017? To what extent will our European partners be even willing to negotiate to such a strict timeline? Are there ‘lines in the sand’ for renegotiation, i.e. would Cameron campaign for ‘out’ if the settlement reached is not up to his standards?

Cameron will take plaudits for now, but has created significant headaches for himself in the medium-term – headaches he is no doubt willing to suffer if staying in office is his reward.

EU flag - Some rights reserved by European ParliamentThe referendum pledge also raises questions for the Liberal Democrats, though questions perhaps with more obvious solutions. Most obviously, we need to decide our response to the referendum and renegotiation call. An in/out vote on the EU was argued for by the party before the onset of Coalition, and politically there would be little to lose in making a similar pledge for the next election. This is a chance to take the political high ground: it is indeed important to achieve a democratic endorsement of our relationship with Europe, and even the most negative polling suggests such a referendum is eminently winnable by the ‘in’ supporters.

There is no hypocrisy in being for the European Union whilst sternly critiquing some aspects of it: this has been the Lib Dem policy for years, and the party should be more vocal about its stance. At the same time, there is obvious room to criticise Cameron’s renegotiation plan as misguided. The best way to reach his goals of reforming the EU and completing the Single Market is through strong, reciprocal relationships with continental leaders, not through alienating them with lectures and constant demands for likely trivial negotiations. The French and German foreign ministers have already poured cold water on the idea of the latter.

The Lib Dems should take heart in this opportunity to win an argument on Europe. Ironically, in pushing Cameron into pledging this referendum UKIP and the Tory right may well have not only ensured that one is quite likely to occur – Labour may well follow suit in a referendum pledge – but also that it will result in the UK staying in the EU. Cameron, ostensibly by far the most eurosceptic party leader, spent much of his speech defending the EU, not lambasting it, and it seems inconceivable that with him at the helm the Conservatives would campaign for anything but staying in.

The result of the UK’s relationship with Europe reaching its lowest ebb for decades may yet be a positive reaffirmation of our ties to the continent.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Daniel Wright is a Senior Associate at Cicero Group

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13 Comments

  • I think we’re all aware of what Cameron is up to: a win/win for the Conservatives in 2015 would mean every voter equating a vote for them with being given a further democratic mandate to shape an “in” or “out” vote on Europe. Starting from today, ‘The Fab Four’ (The Telegraph, Mail, Express,and Sun), as Tim Montgomerie revealingly tells us they are affectionately known at CCHQ, will be joined by The Times in a campaign to annihilate the Lib Dems first in Euro 2014 then in the General Election of 2015. Nick Clegg should be very, very careful not to position himself on the wrong side of the argument over Europe….this calls for improved strategic thinking at LDHQ a.s.a.p.
    (Also posted on ‘Vote Clegg, Get Clegg’ facebook page.)

  • Keith Browning 23rd Jan '13 - 8:08pm

    The Europeans are laughing at the Brits in unison – their heads of state and their people – all laughing as one.

    Schulz probably sums it up this best – “We need a UK as a fully fledged member not harbouring in the port of Dover.

    Dover will indeed be a busy place in 2018. One million Europeans being evicted from Britain, whilst a million Britons who found that life was much better abroad are frog marched to the Channel Tunnel by a phalanx of smiling gendarmes.

    Those poor Brits will be forced to return to a land that is still thinking in black and white, has fond memories of Churchill, Thatcher and the Raj and still believes that a first past the post system can be called ‘democratic’. As someone now sitting a 1000 miles south of Dover – you all look quite ridiculous.

    Is it April 1st already??

  • Richard Dean 23rd Jan '13 - 8:34pm

    One opportunity is to go into the 2015 election on a platform of negotiating the UK’s entry into the Euro, with a Euro-in/out referendum two years later, and a promise to call a new general election if people vote for Out.

    That will give us a really distinctive stance. Do we dare?

  • Bill le Breton 24th Jan '13 - 10:36am

    As Peter above concludes, Cameron’s appears a shrewd tactic from the position he finds himself in.

    But, surely, the LD’s shrewd tactic would have been – starting Spring last year – to have campaigned for an in/out referendum to be held euro election day 2014 and leading the business, social and cultural case for staying in.

    This would have confounded both Labour and the Tories; placed us on the side of giving the public a voice and given us the lead the ‘in’ campaign; linked the ‘in’ supporters to our EU candidate’s regional campaigns; seen us on the winning side (the trending of recent polls towards ‘in’ is proof of the strength of the business case), and divided Conservatives and Labour on the eve of the next General Election.

    The argument that a referendum creates uncertainty is a strong case for an early rather than 2017 decision. Little will be gained in the way of negotiated reforms by 2017.

  • Richard Dean 24th Jan '13 - 10:54am

    If he gets his majority on the promise of a referendum, doesn’t he more or less have to produce one? The claimed popular bitter disillusionment with the EU really only exists because people like Cameron say it and so stoke it up. Lack of interest would be a more accurate description.

    Threats are the wrong way to bring about the radical change the EU needs and is going through. Perhaps it’s the only way the public schoolboys seem to been taught. We should be in there, getting our wicked way with the banking reforms. Instead the Cameron/Osborne stance is leaving us out in the cold. Eventually we will be begging to re-join.

    There is plenty of campaigning time before 2014. I hope we use it well.

  • David Wilkinson 24th Jan '13 - 11:25am

    Peter, I could not find the first two remarks in Jedi’s comments, but the 3rd could refer to Harold. Jedi is doing his bit to expand the number of words in the English language

    Keith Browning remarks about mass clearance, I have canvassed people who support UKIP and the right wing and they actually believe if we are out of Europe then they can clear foreigners out of the UK,

  • Cameron has pulled off a blinder. Ukip supporters and the ‘blue rinse brigade’ want a Referendum – the only way to guarantee one is to vote Tory so it is in UKIP supporters to vote Tory. He has kept his core voters on-side and pulled all the UKIPers in as well. He has also appealed to the grey vote by keeping his pledge to protect benefits for pensioners and attracted the gay vote with equal marriage (something the blue-rinsers will forgive in return for the Referendum). I hate to say it but the Tories are showing themselves far more politically astute than either Labour or Lib Dems – sadly. Lib Dems in particular have lost a large section of their supporters – lesson to be learnt here!! And Labour need a coherent narrative on the EU. I expect they are trying to attract former Lib Dem supporters by ruling out a Referendum but it’s not coming across well.

  • All the noise coming out of Europe is that there will be no re-negotiation, no cherry picking. But is this so? If Cameron is ever to form a new deal with Europe, there will never be a better window of opportunity to do it.
    The UK is in the top four, of contributors to the EU, with a payment of about 13% into the EU budget. Just imagine, if 13% of your customers, suddenly queue outside the doors of your bank, with the clear intention of closing their accounts. You will quickly find that you do not have a viable bank anymore.
    Angela Merkel knows this. She WILL compromise, and WILL negotiate with Cameron, but not because she values the British political input to Europe. She knows that if the British cheques stop coming, then the German and French cheques will have to be increased, to head off Eurogeddon.
    Follow the money, not the hot air and political rhetoric.

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