It won’t have escaped the attention of many readers that this weekend the thorny issue of Britain’s EU membership returned to the headlines.
On the one side, we had leaked extracts of a speech to be given later this week by the Deputy Prime Minister, describing the plan for EU renegotiation and referendum as “a short-sighted political calculation that could jeopardise the long-term national interest”. On the other, we have seen Tory MP Adam Afriyie move an amendment that would bring the EU referendum forward by three years to before the next general election.
I was struck by the fact that, at Conservative Party Conference last week, the Europe debate in the party is now around the depth and breadth of renegotiation, rather than a simple in/out dichotomy. This has been a really important development for everyone who wants to sort out the current problems in an informed and structured manner. It’s therefore disheartening that, in both cases, the only result of the interventions above is likely to be further delays and complications to the ambitious but necessary plan David Cameron outlined in January.
When it comes to Nick Clegg I perhaps shouldn’t be too surprised. As a former MEP and leader of a party that has never come close to a proper critical analysis of the EU, Clegg is primed and ready to hold the Government back from achieving anything like the major changes that are needed in Britain’s relationship with Brussels. His speech on Tuesday looks set to be a prolonged attack on Eurosceptic Tories, couched in the abrasive and doom-mongering language of someone leading a party being outpolled by UKIP.
None of this is helpful. Nick Clegg is the notional number two in a government that is seeking proper reform, not just tinkering around the edges, and his rhetoric serves to inflame the debate and move it away from a dispassionate assessment. In addition, he would do well not to try and claim British “business” supports his assessment of the situation. I know at least 750 business leaders who are with me and the Prime Minister in pushing for full treaty change and a much better deal from the EU to promote jobs and growth.
Turning to the amendment, I understand Adam’s reasoning, but I am concerned this is a further distraction in the process. When I was running the campaign against AV (the Alternative Vote), it briefly became received wisdom that holding the referendum on the day of the local elections in 2011 would result in a change of voting system. MPs wrote in the papers and on this blog that the party needed to push for a change of date to guarantee victory. Yet, behind the scenes, we had run several calculations and worked out that an issue like AV would benefit from the higher turnout at the council elections.
Like with the AV referendum, those who want to change our EU relationship shouldn’t be tempted by siren voices saying that the process should be rushed – James Wharton’s Referendum Bill is the best chance of us getting a referendum. There is huge change afoot in Europe. The plight of the southern European states and rising discontent in Germany, mean the EU leaders are increasingly coming to the conclusion that only deeper economic and political union will save the Eurozone. These moves will give Britain a golden opportunity to re-write our relationship with Brussels and push for greater EU competitiveness overall. But we must allow them to take place naturally – forcing Europe’s hand too early will likely hinder our chance of getting a deal that gives the British people and British business the changes they really want.
Thanks to the Prime Minister the debate on the EU has shifted. Thanks to James Wharton we have a Bill that can deliver the referendum and bolster our chance for a really radical renegotiation. We must stay the course.