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.
The 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.
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* Daniel Wright is a Senior Associate at Cicero Group