A pledge to hold an In/Out referendum in 2017 has been wrung out of a reluctant David Cameron by his party. If he wins a majority next May, this will be only two years away. If he is able only to form a minority government, or re-forms the Coalition, it is still possible that the poll will take place – since the Liberal Democrats and some of the minority parties may back it – but not certain. Those who really want this referendum, therefore, should support the election of a Conservative Government.
However, there will be no fundamental renegotiation, whatever the result. If Cameron leads a minority government, the Commons won’t back one and, if he re-forms the Coalition, the Liberal Democrats won’t agree to one. In any event, Cameron doesn’t want one himself. He supports some restrictions on free movement and on benefit entitlements, and backs less red tape and a bigger role for national parliaments. This falls a long way short of a full-scale return of powers.
It is in this context that Owen Paterson’s speech on Europe yesterday should be read. The former Environment Secretary cannot be accused of failing to think things through. He traced the history of the European project, pointed out that the regulations that govern Britain now ultimately flow from the United Nations, Basel and the G20 (not Brussels), set out some facts about immigration (it’s higher in Australia, despite its points system, which gives pause for thought), and set out an EU exit mechanism.
Paterson wants “to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty…the only legally binding mechanism that we can use to require the rest of the EU to enter formal negotiations with us, on setting out a new relationship…It allows two years for negotiations, so there would still be time for a referendum in 2017. This would now be on the outcome of the talks, when the details of the settlement would be known. There should be a manifesto commitment to invoke Article 50 after a successful General Election.”
All clear enough – but there are two large flies in this sweet-smelling ointment. The first is that Paterson’s plan puts the cart before the horse, at least according to Matts Persson of Open Europe. Once Article 50 has been triggered, he argues, the country concerned has given notice to leave, and “once set in motion, there’s no way back into the EU apart from by unanimous consent by all EU states – even if the UK got a terrible deal at the end of the process.”
In short, Cameron proposes to have a referendum, and then leave the EU if the people so vote. Paterson proposes to leave the EU (according to Persson) and then have the referendum – but without the certainly that Britain could re-enter the EU if it wished. This doesn’t appear to offer voters much of a choice. The second point is more straightforward. There is no possibility whatsoever of Cameron slapping a commitment to pre-empt his referendum by leaving the EU into the Conservative manifesto.
It is at this point that one should step back from the intricacies of Paterson’s speech – from the World Forum for the Codex Alimentarius, the Office International des Epizooties, the Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations, the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), the Financial Stability Board, Article 50, negotiations and referendums…and ponder. He says that his plan “could be enormously attractive to uncommitted voters”. Is that really so?
The plain fact is that voters have listed the EU low down their list of concerns in recent years. According to IPSOS/Mori, six per cent recently listed the Europe as “among the important issues affecting the country”. According to a different YouGov measure, the proportion naming Europe as one of the three top issues was higher, at about 13 per cent. But it was comprehensively outscored by health (36 per cent), immigration (48 per cent) and the economy (60 per cent).
The numbers move about a bit, as numbers do. But the evidence is unambiguous. It will be claimed that the rise of UKIP proves otherwise. Wrong. As Lord Ashcroft has pointed out, “the UKIP threat is not about Europe”. It will then be claimed that voter protest against immigration is actually voter protest against the EU. Wrong again. Consider, for example, the findings of James Bethell’s research. The smarter Kippers, such as Douglas Carswell, diversified their campaigning portfolio long ago.
The Conservatives face a Europe paradox. They need a policy on the EU. And they have one – to hold that referendum. But the more they bang on about (say) whether treaty revision is or isn’t a better route than Article 50, the less likely they are to get it. Most voters are not constitutional anoraks. Indeed, politics scarcely registers with them at all – in the sense of the goings-on within the Westminster Village, anyway.
Primal questions will tug at their sleeves as they go to the polls. Which party is the least worst evil for me and my family? What’s my rough impression of them, and what they stand for? Who’s most likely to provide leadership, if anyone? Who do I distrust least? Will voting really make any difference at all? Mixed up with this will be worries about the health service, immigration (though politicians’ promises on the subject are seldom believed), the economy, and the voter’s own preoccupations.
So banging on. And on. And on. And on. And on and on and on about Europe doesn’t look to be a guaranteed route to their hearts and votes. There is an obvious objection to this point of view: namely, that the EU issue is a political fundamental, can’t and shouldn’t be ducked, and that there is more to life that the mechanical following of polling. Quite so. Which is why we need that referendum. And the more that policy is tugged at and tweaked and tampered with, the less likely we are to get it.
The picture that accompanies this article on ConservativeHome’s front page today is one of the earliest in our archives, and was key to illustrating our call for a more balanced conservatism. It shows a forlorn Tory unable to escape his preoccupations – of which Europe is one – and make a winning appeal to the voters. We hope it won’t be necessary to deploy it too many times before next May, but what goes around comes around.