Earlier this year, the European Union Act 2011 became law. This and any future government is now obliged by statute to hold a referendum before it can ratify a new treaty or treaty amendment that transfers powers or competences from this country to the EU. That’s a Conservative manifesto pledge delivered by the Coalition Government.
With that safeguard in place, the debate within the Conservative Party is about the future shape of Britain’s relationship with the EU. The crisis in the Eurozone has reminded us that jobs and prosperity here are inextricably linked to what happens elsewhere in Europe. It’s important that we get the relationship right. My view remains that set out in our 2010 manifesto: it’s in our national interest to be in the EU but I’d like a more flexible, less centralised model of European cooperation, including key powers returned from the EU to the UK.
It’s in this context that I take the view that today’s motion is the wrong approach. The original petition was for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership but that sharp division between the status quo and quitting the EU does not reflect the breadth of views held in the party or the country. Understandably, the colleagues proposing the motion have amended the original petition to include a third option of renegotiation. But it has been left completely unclear what this means in practice.
If people voted to leave the EU would that mean having no special relationship with the EU or would it mean a relationship like Norway’s? (Norway by the way pays into the EU budget and implements all the Single Market regulations without having a say on either). If people want renegotiation what should be in the package? Should the British people, having backed renegotiation, be asked for their opinion on whether they liked the result or should that be left to MPs? The people proposing this motion have not given answers to any of these questions.
I am not opposed in principle to a referendum at some point on our relationship with the EU – after all, we wrote the referendum lock into law. Equally, it would be extremely unwise to predetermine that our relations with the EU should require a referendum at a particular point. We may be far better off taking a step by step approach and a referendum on each and every step would be not make sense.
Any referendum should be on a proposition whose meaning is clear and it would make far more sense if it were at the conclusion of negotiations rather than a broad mandate – that is what election manifestos are for.
A vote in the House of Commons on a matter of Government policy is a serious business. It is not a matter on which the Government can remain neutral. It should in substance be meaningful and thought through. Voters have the right to expect that.
Some have argued that because of the Eurozone events have moved on. The Eurozone is certainly not in a good way but nothing has happened so far to change the fundamental nature of the European Union. If the Eurozone is to survive they will certainly have to take steps to greater fiscal integration and the Eurozone creditor countries will want to make sure that tougher rules are in place to make sure other Eurozone countries cannot make a mess of their public finances again. But the acute difficulty Eurozone countries are having reconciling the compelling economic logic of monetary union with what is democratically acceptable to their voters leads to a very important conclusion.
Deeper integration in the Eurozone is likely to proceed step by step, not all at once in a grand bargain. There should be, then, many opportunities for British governments to advance our national interests during the course of negotiations.
We are less than a year and a half into the first Conservative-led Government for thirteen years. It is a Coalition Government: that means it cannot do everything Conservatives would like. It is wrestling with a difficult economic recovery and Labour’s appalling financial legacy, as well as undertaking crucial reforms to public services and the welfare system. The British public want to see this Government focussing on growth, dealing with the deficit, making work pay and delivering better schools. The Eurozone crisis is hobbling the global recovery by creating massive market and business uncertainty.
There could be no worse time to change our priorities and add to that economic uncertainty, which would be enormous, particularly for inward investment, with an EU referendum of no clear meaning. That would not be a sign of a serious Government or Party. This evening’s vote is not a matter of principle but of concrete policy on a specific question at a specific time. It would be ironic if instead of showing the real unity of purpose in the party on the EU on bringing back powers – far greater than when I was elected in 1992 – this vote drew out tactical differences. That is why I am urging my colleagues to vote with the Government and against the motion.
> Also on ConHome today: David Nuttall MP makes the case for his referendum motion.