5 initial thoughts on David Cameron’s Europe speech

David Cameron - License Some rights reserved by Statsministerens kontor David Cameron delivered his long, long-awaited speech on Europe this morning (text here). Caron’s rounding up the reactions from Lib Dems here – but here are my five initial thoughts…

This is the speech Cameron didn’t want ever to have to give.

Let’s be clear, David Cameron is making this speech now to try and keep the Conservatives together. The threat from Ukip and the party’s right has proved too powerful to withstand. Offering a referendum was no longer an option open to him: it was an inevitability forced on him by the Tory Eurosceptic wing. Cameron has put party interest before national interest.

Cameron’s had a good day…

His speech was well-crafted and well-delivered. A Prime Minister has the power to set the agenda: that’s what Cameron has done today. Lib Dem members may not have liked it, but its core message is likely to have appealed to many (potential) Lib Dem voters: in favour of British membership of the EU, but on British terms. Both the Lib Dems and Labour will have to follow suit now and commit to a referendum, too. We shouldn’t kid ourselves — the Tories will get a significant poll boost from this, just as Cameron did after his faux-veto in December 2011. Having the right-wing press lined up behind him will give Tory MPs a fillip, as Tim Montgomerie points out.

… BUT tomorrow’s another day

The speech has worked, for now. He will get a hero’s welcome from his backbenchers at PMQs today, something he’s not heard in the last nine months. Then there’s tomorrow and the dawning realisation that all his problems remain: Ukip are still the only major anti-EU party; the Tories remain obsessed by Europe; and Cameron has committed himself to years of detailed negotiations at a time when his focus should be fully on the economy.

The devil’s in the detail

Cameron’s bought off Tory Eurosceptics for a while. But it’s already clear where the next set of battlelines will be drawn: which powers should be repatriated in order to secure the best deal for the UK that’s also acceptable to the other 26 member nations of the EU? When I was on BBC Radio 5Live earlier, Liam Fox made clear he wants the UK relationship to revert “back to a Common Market”. But Cameron knows he hasn’t a hope in hell of achieving that. His speech specifically advocates the role of the EU in tackling climate change and organised crime – that’s a significant departure from the Tory Fresh Start group’s position. As Lord Ashcroft points out, the more the Tories talk about Europe the less likely it is they will win in 2015. Good luck with stopping ’em, m’Lord!

It’s a high stakes strategy

Significant chunks of Cameron’s speech could have been delivered by a Lib Dem (in substance if not rhetoric): pro-EU, pro-reform, pro-referendum. However, the Lib Dems have always said, rightly, that you cannot hope to negotiate unilaterally; that reform is best achieved through negotiation. It’s just possible Cameron’s approach will work, that he will achieve what Margaret Thatcher did in 1984 with the British budget rebate. But the EU is much bigger now than then, which means our power is that much more diluted. And other European powers are unlikely to take kindly to a deadline being set by which they must gain agreement with a Eurosceptic Tory party.

David Cameron is betting the UK’s future relationship with our biggest trading market on the basis of his personal powers of persuasion. One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t want to be in his chaussures.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 23rd Jan '13 - 11:29am

    This should motivate Lib Dem activists to get out there and make sure the Tories don’t get an overall majority next time.

    Given his track record on having the EU take him seriously, we could end up, if we’re not careful, with the PM of the day leading the no campaign because he’s not going to get what he wants and may be pressured by his own side into a referendum anyway.

    And Cameron is the last person we want to be negotiating on our behalf. He’d want to erode employment rights and diminish our rights as per the ECHR too. I don’t want to have the only two choices in a referendum being the Tory right’s mantra or leave.

  • Both the Lib Dems and Labour will have to follow suit now and commit to a referendum, too.

    Did you mean this? The current policy is that a transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels in a treaty should be the trigger for a referendum. Surely this is the line to hold to. We risk getting enmeshed in Cameron’s terms and end up campaigning for changes that we oppose (such as not taking part in EU justice procedures and bringing back long working hours for junior doctors).

    How can Lib Dems commit for a referendum ahead of a hypothetical renegotiation for which no one can have any idea what the outcome might be? What happens if Lib Dems and Labour do not like the renegotiation?

  • “The current policy is that a transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels in a treaty should be the trigger for a referendum.”

    Well, the 2010 manifesto said this:
    “Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.”

    Surely that would cover the kind of renegotiation that Cameron is proposing now?

  • What I find surprising is that David seems to have firmed up on both what the referendum will be about – in or out and the terms of our negotiations – repatriation of powers.

    We should remember that all parties have effectively committed the UK to referendum on any new Treaty, so the only thing that really needs to be discussed is just what is it that the UK would like to see in a new EU Treaty. Yes this referendum pre-supposes the UK continuing as a member of the EU even if it votes against the Treaty, but I would suggest only when such a vote has been lost and the EU has nothing to offer other than asking us to rerun the referendum (as per Ireland etc over the Lisbon treaty), would and should we be considering an in/out vote.

    So David could of laid out his vision for the UK in the EU and hence the basis of UK negotiations in the reform of the EU and rounded it up with a reaffirmation that a referendum will be held on the resulting Treaty.

    What is certain, the referendum won’t settle the European question in British politic’s, particularly if the result is to remain in the EU…

  • James Sandbach 23rd Jan '13 - 1:07pm

    @stephen “David Cameron is betting the UK’s future relationship with our biggest trading market on the basis of his personal powers of persuasion…I wouldn’t want to be in his chaussures.” But we are in his “chaussures” for as long as we are in his Government!

  • paul barker 23rd Jan '13 - 1:24pm

    “Libdems will have to follow” No, no,no. Referenda are a really bad idea unless the question is one most voters think is important – the Anglo-Irish agreement & Scottish Independence are good examples. Europe has been wobbling around 5% in the survey of “important issues”. Any referendum would risk a low turnout & being hijacked by the minority who really care or by voters wanting to protest against the government
    We shouls stick to our position & oppose this dangerous stunt.
    As for the Tories looking united !? In 2015 the Conservatives will look split & obsessed with themselves.

  • matt thompson 23rd Jan '13 - 1:38pm

    Mrs Duffy? Rachel Bull? Boston? Romania? Bulgaria?

  • James Sandbach 23rd Jan '13 - 1:40pm

    Context is everything with a referenda (thinking back to AV debacle) – a referenda which subliminally says we are better off out of this european milarkee and greek debt..don’t you agree? can have only one outcome,,,,,,!

  • For once I find myself agreeing with nick Clegg when he says, why have “years and years of grinding uncertainty” ?
    And the clear answer to stopping years of grinding uncertainty, is to have the referendum sooner. In 2014 it is going to cost us some £75 million(?), for the European elections. I don’t think that is a good use of taxpayers’ money just to buy 2 or 3 more years of uncertainty for everyone. Its far more logical, (and cheaper for the taxpayer!), to have the referendum in 2014.
    I can see why Cameron’s self interest, induces him to push the referendum beyond 2015, but given the fact that the EU has said loud and clear that re-negotiation, and repatriation is a non starter,(no UK cherry picking!!), why wait until after the 2015 elections to simply be told by the EU,…. what we already know?
    And lastly, we see constantly in the dubious world of politics, that promises, pledges and cast iron guarantees, tend to have a secret, ‘best before’ date embedded in the small print. So taking Nick Clegg’s justified desire to end years of grinding uncertainty, let’s stop dithering, grasp the nettle, and have the referendum in 2014, saving taxpayers money into the bargain.

  • Al McIntosh 23rd Jan '13 - 2:21pm

    Today the myths peddled by the Westminster-led anti-independence campaign in Scotland exploded in their faces. Their claims that Scotland has a stronger voice in europe as part of the UK and that the terms of Scotland’s membership cannot be renegotiated from within the EU are now exposed as the empty rhetoric and scaremongering they always were.

    Moreover, their anti-democratic and illiberal arguments that holding a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014 would lead to damaging uncertainty have now rebounded on them since the EU referendum will not be until 2017!

    The choice is between a Scotland with a strong independent voice in europe and the world or being a peripheral part of an isolationist UK.

    With the UK’s continued membership of the EU now in grave doubt it is more important than ever before that Scotland secures its place as part of the EU and the best place on this island to do business with europe by voting yes to independence in 2014.

  • Kevin Colwill 23rd Jan '13 - 2:47pm

    Thought 6… Cameron has decided the UKIP is much more of an electoral threat than the Lin Dems.

    Still think being in the tent p**sing out is giving you real influence and allowing you to shape Britain’s future for the better?!

  • I am really confused with all this stuff and would appreciate if someone could please enlighten me.

    1) Am I right in thinking that all 3 main parties signed up to having a referendum, only “if” more powers were “given” to Brussels.
    2) Renegotiating powers “back” from Brussels is not the same as (1) and so would not commit any party to supporting a referendum.
    3) Cameron said they will “draft” legislation by the end of this parliament, I am confused to what this means, Wouldn’t any “draft” legislation being made during “this Parliament” have to be agreed by and have input from the Liberal Democrats?
    (4) Where do you think Liberal Democrats will stand at the 2015 election if we ended up with another hung parliament, with the conservatives being the larger party. And Cameron has committed the party to a referendum in 2017 and this will be a red line for a renewed coalition agreement, Would Liberal Democrats enter another term of coalition on these terms?

  • There’s a few points which concern me about this (not withstating @AlMcIntosh’s parrotting of the SNP / Alex Salmond line, if indeed he is a member of the Lib Dems as his name shows!)

    Firstly, the proposal seems to be that Cameron will renegotiate Britain’s terms, then call a referendum on a yes/no membership based on these. What happens if, like me, you’re quite happy with Britain’s terms now and don’t see the need to renegotiate? Anything Cameron is likely to come out with will be far from what I want – so which way should I vote? Do I vote “yes” to conditions which I don’t find acceptable and which I don’t think go far enough, or do I vote “no” because I don’t agree with them at all, running the risk of the UK withdrawing completely? At the moment, I’m finding it very difficult to support either side and I could quite easily seem myself not voting because I don’t agree with either of the options being offered.

    Secondly, the timing of the referendum. As is clear from my first comment, I don’t support independence for Scotland – but I do support being a member of the EU. What if Scotland votes “no” to independence in 2015, which, under present circumstances, I would do, but the UK – led by England – votes “no” and withdraws from the EU in 2017? That wasn’t what I’d voted for – I think membership of the EU is vital to the extent that if it were a choice between an independent Scotland as a fully participating member of the EU or a United Kingdom outside the EU I’d go for the former. In my view, there is a real chance that this could trigger a second independence referendum within a few years of the first – particularly if Scotland, in the EU referendum, voted a different way to England (and if the Tories are leading the ‘no’ campaign I’d put my house on that happening) – which would be destabilising for a UK withdrawing from the EU.

  • Interesting questions matt, I had wondered about the word ‘draft’, but I think Cameron said something about legislation in the next parliament, so I am fairly certain that this is a less technical use of the word ‘draft’ that might be assumed.

    Point 4 looks like the nightmare scenario. Lib Dems need to spell out how we and our EU partners want the EU to develop. How would it be if the Conservatives had an overall majority? Cameron twists arms in the EU so that he comes back with longer hours for doctors and lorry drivers and loopholes for fugitive criminals, then expects Lib Dems and Labour to pat him on the back and campaign for a Yes vote. How are we supposed to deal with that?

    If the Tories are out of office in 2015, then I expect that their party will become entirely over run by the UKIP types and manifestations of Europhobia will be so fitfully frenzied and apoplectic that it will have to be recognised as a certifiable condition.

  • “What happens if, like me, you’re quite happy with Britain’s terms now and don’t see the need to renegotiate?”

    You make sure you don’t vote Conservative at the next election. I think this leaves pro-European Conservatives in a very difficult position.

  • @Al McIntosh, Keith Left

    Given that the EU has said that it won’t fast track Scotland if it leaves the UK but the remainder of the UK would continue as a member of the EU, then two things occur to me:

    1. Would it not be better to put the Scottish referendum on hold until the position of the UK vis-à-vis the EU is clarified?
    2. Given that Scotland wants to be in the EU and any vote for a UK exit of the EU would essentially be an English vote, should the real referendum be on whether England remains in the UK? In fact maybe all parts of the UK should vote on whether they wish to remain part of the UK? Those bits that do want to remain would retain the UK’s membership of the EU, those that chose to leave the UK would automatically leave the EU as well.

    I hasten to add I don’t want any part of the UK to leave the UK or the EU, but it might make more sense to do it that way.

  • Helen Dudden 23rd Jan '13 - 7:25pm

    I liked the first part of the article to keep the Conservatives together. Is this only about politics also we mention UKIP? In 1946, after the ending of a war that shocked the world with it’s cruelty, the, then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill made a speech at Zurich University, you will know the history of the speech, and his dream.

    Good intentions from someone I feel respect for. Anyone, who had listened to the music of Henryk Gorecski understands the sadness of the music. It should make us remember the reasons this was formed.

  • @Keith Legg – oops, sorry just read my post back and realised that the predictive text mangled your name.

  • Part of the coalition project, I understand was to prevent the right wing of the conservative gaining policy initiatives and encourage a more progressive policy. The pandering of Cameron to the right wing Euro Sceptics shows that this has failed.

    Typically, Cameron and the Conservatives are subjugating all elements of life to the narrow party interest and a Conservative victory.

    Cameron, I feel is trying to use the European issue to distract from the appalling state of the economy, which is likely to be no further forward in 2 years time and probably worse. It is just another way of blaming ordinary people for the failures of the current free market no regulation system.

    To be clear, when the Conservatives talk about leaving the EC and the red tape, they are talking about being able to evade social protection legislation and the Human Rights Act. Unreasonable things like preventing people working 100 hours a week and so on.

    The unfortunate thing is that with the right wing media of Sun, Express, Mail, Times and Telegraph behind them, the Eurosceptics have a good chance of winning that debate, however spurious the alleged benefits of leaving the EC are. It is an argument based on emotion, and jingoistic patriotism and little else.

    Perhaps the stronger economic, social and political arguments of staying part of Europe may prevail and maybe a proper debate may bring that out.

    It appears though that the Conservatives appear to feel that the only way to compete with China is having an equivalent civil and economically disempowered population. With the Conservatives making being part of the UK as unpallatable as possible, I would not be surprised if Scottish independence is being given a further boost as Scots would be able to argue that with independence that they could retain the human rights act and social protection.

    (Alongside the fillup of advising that an independent country can easily exist outside the EC as mentioned above).

    I do know that if the Conservatives do get their way this country is shaping up to be a mightily divided, polarised and unpleasant place to live.

  • Martin Lowe 23rd Jan '13 - 9:55pm

    Cameron’s clear blue water is going to scare away the centre-right pro-EU voters he fought so hard to get him elected.

    The Liberal Democrats can capitalise on this. Suddenly, those 20 Lib Dem target seats the Tories had for 2015 don’t look like the slam dunk they thought they were originally.

  • Paul McKeown 23rd Jan '13 - 11:54pm

    For the first time in my life I would be prepared to countenance a pre-election pact by the Lib Dems. With Labour – and with the sole purpose of sinking the Conservative’s plans for our relations with Europe, handing them out an electoral pasting they would long rue. And I would be happy to stuff Lib Dem leaflets in letterboxes with one hand and Labour leaflets with the other hand on that basis.

    From what I read in the Evening Standard today, I believe Cameron’s proposed basis for renegotiation is extremely damaging to our long term national interest. Of the ten items listed, I vehemently opposed six, somewhat opposed two and of the other two, my reaction was, “Does any worry about this?”

  • Paul McKeown 24th Jan '13 - 12:46am

    Peter Oborne’s piece in the Telegraph is interesting. See http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/eureferendum/9821289/David-Cameron-may-have-finished-off-the-Tories-but-he-had-no-choice.html He reckons that the Conservative Party might ultimately schism over the European issue, like Labour and the SDP did in the ’80s, with the pro-EU Tory left having had enough.

  • Martin – you could be right. I’ve worked in a couple of those Tory target seats and the thing I remember most is the large number of centre right, pro-EU Tories just itching for the chance to vote for us! 🙂

  • I have a very hard time imagining the Conservatives splitting over Europe. I find it impossible to imagine pro-Europe Tories moving en masse to the Lib Dems. (I find it easier to imagine one or two going to Labour!) If there were a split, I expect it would result in the formation of a most likely small (European) “Unionist” party. But it could only be populated by pro-Europe Tories who felt confident that they could win in their constituencies without a blue rosette, and how many of them are there really?

  • jedibeeftrix 24th Jan ’13 – 8:09am………..Cameron has shot the UKIP fox, they’ll do great in the euros’s but nationally they’ll be stuck at one or two percent……….

    The whole ‘renegotiation/referendum scenario’ can be condensed into jedbeefx’s sentence.

  • Matthew Green 24th Jan '13 - 8:42am

    Cameron’s move is very clever, and Lib Dems do themselves no favours by underestimating him. I think what he has said will resonate well with the British public. And it sounded sufficiently pro-EU to suggest that he may in fact start to turn the Eurosceptic tide. He seems to have reassured his big business backers. The party should be trying to drive a wedge between him and the real Eurosceptics – not trying to say that they’re all the same. Meanwhile I absolutely despair of the party’s gyrations over whether or not to hold an in-out referendum. It badly undermines public trust in the party – which is already very low.

    More important, what commenters to this post seem to have missed is that the EU itself has to change to stabilise the Euro over the long term. That means some kind of renegotiation has to happen regardless…and this might well trigger a referendum under our referundum lock legislation – or at least a very damamaging row over whether we should. If that’s so then Cameron’s strategy of using the renegotiation to extract a few token concessions and then having an in-out referendum is about the best way forward for both us and the EU. The best bet for us is not to oppose Cameron but to corrupt his plan for our own ends.

    At least Ed Miliband is all over the place on this. It has probably cost him his chances of winning the next election outright.

  • I though the Lib Dem policy was to have an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU?

  • Richard Dean 24th Jan '13 - 6:06pm

    … and unfortunately the Posh Boys have managed to keep us out of the decision-making process

  • @Richard Dean
    that’s not a nice thing to say about Clegg and Co. 😀

  • Richard Dean 24th Jan '13 - 8:12pm

    Perhaps it’s not, but thankfully the LibDems have amended Section 5 of the Public Order Act . I quote:

    ” …So we have made a change. A big change. It will still be a crime to discriminate against others, to harass people or to incite violence. But that key phrase, “insulting words or behaviour”, is gone. That is a significant step forward for freedom of speech. … People will now be able to speak their mind without fear.”

    Put another way, I can now be as rude as I like! And I do like, yes! 🙂


  • David Pollard 24th Jan '13 - 8:22pm

    I agree with Matthew Green, especially the bit about supporting Cameron against his sceptics. Cameron’s speeches have been very subtle; when addressing the Euopeans he stressed the need for the EU to become more competitive. This could mean that powers which at present make Europe un-competitive, could be re-partriated to all members, who could then choose to drop them or not. We should be supporting Cameron if these is the objective of his re-negotiation. Also, I support his campaign to tackle international companies which don’t pay their fair share of taxe and his proposed use of the Chairmanship of the G8 to push this. Could backfire though, because a channel 4 pointed out, a dozen tax havens are British colonies – e.g. the Cayman islands.
    Finally, I support UKIP in their demand to get rid of all those straight bananas they say we have been forced by the EU to buy in supermarkets!!!

  • I’m largely with Matthew Green and David Pollard – apart from the no doubt tongue-in-cheek reference to the straight banana myth. . We have to make some judgements about Cameron’s stance and the motivation behind it. I for one judge that he does firmly want UK within the EU but obviously also wants to stop UKIP plus his own persistent europhobes from damaging his electoral chances. His strategy is to talk tough but end up putting to the people the best deal he can secure. Even if many Tories vote against he will win the referendum with Labour and Lib Dem support.. Given that some sort of two tier arrangement is certain to be concluded with the Eurozone being forced into greater harmonisation, Cameron will seek to lead the non-Euro group. He is bound to have some degree of success provided he plays more for measures of general benefit to this group rather than UK cherry-picking and exceptionalism. In this regard I thought his reply to the final question in yesterday’s PMQs was significant –

    Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): Pitt the Younger said that “Europe is not to be saved by any single man”,and then correctly went on to predict that England would “save Europe by her example.” I believe that my right hon. Friend is in danger of contradicting Pitt, because his example today and his exertions over the next four years stand the best possible chance of rescuing the European Union for both Europe and Britain.

    The Prime Minister: I thank my hon. Friend for what he says. He makes an important point, which is that Britain’s agenda is not one of simply saying, “This is what Britain wants and if we don’t get it we will leave”, it is an agenda that is good for the whole of the European Union. We face a massive competitiveness challenge from the rising countries of the south and the east, and we must accept that Europe at the moment is not working properly—it is adding to business costs, adding to regulation, and we need to change that not just for our sake but for that of those right across the European Union.

    As Nick Clegg says the real problem is the danger of major investment decisions going against UK during these interim years because we do not look like a sound and lasting EU base. Is there a case for the LIb Dems to co-operate in permitting the “re-negotiation” to begin now (or as soon as a greater level of stability has been achieved within the eurozone) rather than waiting for the end of this parliament? That would help to ensure that the emphasis was indeed on measures of wider benefit rather than merely narrow UK interests.

    It is all a dangerous game. Personally I think the UK should feel very lucky to be able to maintain all the benefits of EU membership without being forced to join the Euro.

  • Denis 25th Jan ’13 – 12:34pm……………………….His strategy is to talk tough but end up putting to the people the best deal he can secure. Even if many Tories vote against he will win the referendum with Labour and Lib Dem support………….

    So, if he doesn’t get major (lovely vague term)concessions from Europe, will he campaign for, or against, continuing membership?

    The idea that LibDem/Labour reasoned arguments will counter the Mail/Sun/Express/Telegraph ‘anti-rants’ sounds rather optimistic to me.

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