Published:


Glendening marcMarc Glendening is Political Director of People's
Pledge
.

Love rats that have been caught out by their partners often then go through an
elaborate, desperate act of contrition to buy more time and keep the
relationship afloat. David Cameron, having been exposed late last year as not
being true to his apparent promise to give us a definitive say on EU
membership, is now apparently about to re-commit for the long-term to those of
us who want a real referendum.

David Cameron’s big European speech later this month will be for him and those who
support an EU referendum the equivalent of a final, make or break Relate
session. It’s important we all understand this.

It took a wily, suspicious woman to tease the truth out of the prime minister
last time round. At PMQs on October 16 2012, Labour MP and People's Pledge
supporter Natascha Engel, ingeniously asked Mr Cameron which way he would vote
in the in-out referendum he had recently appeared to endorse on the eve of the
Tory conference. He prevaricated uneasily before confessing, finally, that the
ballot he was thinking about giving us (at some unspecified point in the
future) would not, after all, give the electorate the option of actually
leaving the EU as he did not believe this was in Britain’s interest. It was
unclear then what this hypothetical ballot would actually be about. So, just a load
of sweet nothings.


And then there was that unfortunate business to do with the then Leader of the Opposition, the Lisbon treaty and his ‘cast iron guarantee’, but perhaps best
not to revisit that tawdry little story again…

Who knows, perhaps David Cameron now realises that with the EU about to move
towards full banking, debt and fiscal union, there can be no escaping the need
to let the British people — within the lifetime of the next Parliament — decide
where their political future ultimately lies. Or, perhaps this is really just
another ploy to try and neutralise the issue within his own party and among the
70% plus of voters who say they want the right to be consulted about our
relationship with Brussels in the long run-ups to the next European and general
elections.

Here are three questions the prime minister needs to answer in order that we
can decide for ourselves how genuine the promise he will soon make to us
actually is:

  1. If a re-negotiation of Britain’s relationship with Brussels fails to materialise,
    or only produces very minimal results, does David Cameron still intend calling
    an in-out EU referendum, within the lifetime of the next parliament?
  2. If the Conservatives fail to win an outright majority at the next election,
    will David Cameron make the forming of a coalition government conditional on
    potential partners signing up to an in-out referendum?
  3. Will the government write into law that there will be a referendum on EU
    membership within the lifetime of the next parliament?

It is important that the first question be put because we need to know if
Cameron’s referendum commitment is absolute or contingent on a significant
number of powers being successfully repatriated to parliament from Brussels. If
it is the latter, forget it. As things stand there is no legal basis whatsoever
for a re-negotiation, successful or otherwise, unless the UK government evokes
article 50 of the treaty. This covers the arrangements for arriving at a new
relationship between a member country notifying the EU of its wish to leave and
the European Council, the body on which the other political heads of state are
represented. Given that Cameron says he does not support Britain leaving the EU
this is clearly not an option open to him. He has already intimated that in any
future direct test of public opinion, he will be campaigning to stay in. 

There is simply no procedure available to a member government that wishes to
unilaterally instigate an EU Inter Governmental Conference (IGC) with the
intention of trying to obtain a repatriation of powers to itself. Article 48
states that any proposal by a member state, the Commission or the European
Parliament for a revision of the treaty requires majority support within the
council. Even if that hurdle is crossed, the proposed amendments must then be
approved by a Convention drawn from representatives of all the member states
governments and their national parliaments, the European Parliament and the
Commission working on the basis of consensus, rather than actual voting. Once
this has concluded its deliberations, a Conference of Representatives of the
member countries will decide what amendments to accept or reject.

The only other option open to David Cameron is to use the next proposed treaty,
discussions around which will commence in 2014, to try and wrestle back some
powers. However, given that the current Government’s position is that greater
fiscal union is to be encouraged for the Eurozone countries, it seems very
unlikely that the Prime Minister will play extreme hard-ball with Angela Merkel
and the other EU leaders by threatening to withhold his consent from the
treaty. On the Andrew Marr Show he implied he might do this, but
don’t hold your breath, especially if the Coalition is still in place when
negotiations start in earnest. 

The second question needs to be asked because voters who want a referendum need
to know to what extent this objective is a priority for David Cameron. Anything
other than a categorical assurance that giving the British people a vote on EU
membership will be a condition of forming a future coalition government – as the AV ballot was for Nick Clegg – should bring into question how firm the Prime Minister’s commitment actually is.

Likewise, the last one needs to be put not just to confirm the Government’s
level of commitment but because of the uncertainty concerning the result of the
next general election. By enshrining the policy of a referendum in legislation
David Cameron will put both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg in an extremely
difficult position. The Prime Minister should dare the other party leaders to
whip their MPs to block a policy a clear majority of the electorate
consistently say they support. By stipulating in the Referendum Bill that the
ballot should take place by 2020, Cameron would remove in one fell swoop the
potential excuse for opposing this measure that ‘now is not the right time’. 

As with the undertakings errant lovers make to those they have mislead, the
devil is always in the detail. That is why these questions need to put and
answered.

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