Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
All the facts are before us now. There are no further reasons to delay, no outstanding points in need of clarification. It’s time to weigh the alternatives and pick sides.
You still occasionally hear people talking about “waiting to see” what David Cameron can “secure” in the “talks”. In fact, we know precisely what is being asked for, and we know it will be granted. The Prime Minister set out his demands, if we can call them such, in a letter to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, last month. Tusk has replied. We can see for ourselves, in other words, what the talks are about.
We can see – most supporters of the EU are honest enough to admit this – that Cameron is asking for things that require little or no change. When he first launched the idea of a delayed referendum, in 2013, he had ambitious plans. He had promised to opt out of EU social and employment policy, to repatriate criminal justice, to disapply the Charter of Fundamental Rights, to curb the European Court of Justice, to restore parliamentary supremacy, to limit the number of EU migrants entering Britain. All such talk has since been quietly ditched, and Britain has been reduced to banging the table and angrily demanding the status quo.
I’ve set out previously on this site why the Prime Minister’s agenda alters nothing. But don’t take my word for it. The test of whether the EU’s rules have changed is whether – well, whether they are, you know, changed. In other words, whether there is a new treaty. It was precisely to allow time to negotiate a new treaty that a delay until 2017 was originally proposed. As late as this year, ministers were still insisting that “proper, full-on treaty change” was a necessary part of any successful renegotiation. Now that, too, has been dropped, and the Government is aiming to rush through the referendum in six months’ time.
Fair enough: June will be a pleasant month in which to hold our Independence Day parties in years to come. But it must surely be clear by now that the renegotiation process, which had been intended to boost the BSE campaign, has instead served to prove that the EU is incapable of reform. If we want a different kind of relationship – the kind originally suggested by Cameron, based on free trade rather than political amalgamation – we shall have to get it from outside the present treaties. Most people are waking up to this reality: hence the swing in every poll to the “Leave” side since the summer.
Where does this leave a Conservative who supports the Prime Minister, thinks his Government is doing good things, but believes that the safer choice is to stand aside as the EU hurtles ahead with the integration of its economic, fiscal, migration and judicial policies?
I write as such a Conservative myself. I voted for Cameron as Party leader, and regard him as being one of our most successful prime ministers. Look at the state of the country he inherited – indebted, sclerotic, over-governed, surly – and look at it now. Our party’s fortunes have risen as our deficit, our unemployment rate, our crime statistics and our levels of welfare dependency have fallen. For what it’s worth, I’ve always found the Prime Minister clever, charming and sincere. In a world full of politicians with complexes, he is visibly – as we Old Brussels Hands say - bien dans sa peau. I like the chap.
None of this should be remotely relevant to the question of whether Britain would be wealthier as a global player outside the EU. Except that some Brussels-backers are cretinously trying to turn the referendum into a test of Tory loyalty.
The whole point of a referendum – I can’t believe I’m having to write this – is that it allows both sides to be heard. We are holding a vote on EU membership precisely because the issue divides the main British parties. The Conservative Party has, to its credit, adopted a position of neutrality. It won’t use its financial allocation for either side; it’s allowing its staff to take unpaid leave for either side; and it won’t allow either side access to its databases. Every party member, in other words, should make up his or her mind on the strength of the two arguments.
Until now, reasonably enough, many of our MPs and activists have been hanging back to see what deal might emerge. But, as I say, its outlines are now pitilessly clear: we shall be members on the existing terms. Back in August, a Downing Street aide told the Sunday Times “If the referendum campaign is fought around what is actually renegotiated we are f*****.” Quite so.
Some Conservatives, of course, are determined to leave the EU in any event, and a few are happy with the old terms. But others wanted to decide when all the facts were in. I’d place myself in that category. I’ve never seen Brexit as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end – that end being a richer, freer, more democratic Britain. If those ends could have been delivered through a renegotiation, I’d have been delighted. Had the talks delivered significant repatriations of power, including the supremacy of UK over EU law and the right to strike bilateral trade deals with non-EU states like Australia and India, I’d have backed the deal. But we now know that none of these things is on the agenda.
We know, too, where most party members stand: in this site’s monthly poll, a steady 70 per cent say they will vote to leave. Members of Parliament have been a little more reticent, but I noticed, in the run-up to the recent general election, that many Conservative MPs said that they would vote to leave if no better terms were on offer. At the selection meetings that preceded that election, it was almost standard for candidates to say, “If the referendum were today, I’d vote to leave”.
Some of them, of course, may simply have been trying to get themselves selected, thinking that a different deal would be on offer; they are now wriggling uncomfortably on the barbs they fashioned for themselves. But most, I think, were sincere. And they now know that no better terms are available. If we want a looser deal, we must vote to leave – that is when the real bargaining will begin. I’m launching my own campaign in my South East region, with a meeting at Southampton this Friday, and another at Eastbourne’s Winter Gardens a week on Saturday.
What about you – especially if you’re reading this article as an MP? You may, of course, think Brussels is doing fine as it is. Fair enough: there are good, patriotic people on both sides of this argument. You may be left cold by the whole debate. Again, fair enough: not everyone cares about the EU. But if you are concerned about our national independence, about control of our own money, taxes and borders, about your chamber remaining the supreme council of our country, you surely now see that there is no way of securing these things from inside the EU.
The better terms we were hoping for, like Godot, aren’t coming. It’s time to decide.