John Baron MP has recently visited a number of European capitals with the Foreign Affairs Committee. He suggests David Cameron has a golden opportunity when he makes his EU speech shortly, but only if certain realities are grasped. And only if the right referendum approach is adopted.
The Foreign Affairs Select Committee is currently compiling a report on UK-EU relations. Over the past few months, we have visited Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Bern, and have met fellow Parliamentarians, bankers, diplomats, analysts and opinion-formers from across the political spectrum. For me, the most striking aspect of our visits is the unanimity of opinion on two points in particular.
The first is that deeper political union is the only long-term solution to the ongoing Eurozone crisis. Political leaders have finally realised that monetary union cannot work without fiscal union. More harmonisation is required if the euro is to be saved. If there was any doubt about the political priority attached to this mission, one only has to listen to German bankers and diplomats talking about the need to turn on the printing presses should the ECB actually have to buy periphery sovereign debt.
The second is that the British Government’s stated aim of repatriating powers will be fiercely resisted. Opinion regarding access to an à la carte EU is hardening. The view is that more, not less, Europe is required. As we speak, the Swiss are fighting a rearguard action to preserve the integrity of their bilateral agreements.
Accordingly, the more relevant question is perhaps whether the system is flexible enough to allow the UK to stay where it is – outside the euro, but inside the EU – without its interests being infringed. This, after all, would be a very exclusive club.
The Prime Minister's much trailed European speech is due shortly. No 10 is keeping quiet on the actual content – though the Prime Minister did tell Gisela Stuart MP, a noted Eurosceptic, that she would not dislike it. But I suggest it must acknowledge these observations: that greater political union is a sine qua non; and that renegotiation is unlikely to bear fruit.
There is fevered speculation the Prime Minister will use his speech to announce a referendum on our EU membership. There are indications he is shifting his stance. Whilst on a visit to Brazil earlier this year, and perhaps prompted by the letter I and 100 other Conservative backbench MPs sent him on this subject, David Cameron spoke of the need to seek the ‘fresh consent’ of the British people as to our future relationship with the EU.
Our letter to the Prime Minister sent in June, and followed by another in November requesting a meeting, went further than the Prime Minister’s current position. It called upon the Government to place legislation on the Statute Book in this Parliament to compel the Government of the day to hold a referendum at some stage in the next Parliament. This is right for the country. Given how the EU has changed since we first joined it, a referendum is long overdue.
Such an approach would have many advantages. Legislating now would help to restore public trust after so many broken promises on Europe – from politicians on both sides of the political divide. Manifesto promises no longer wash. Meanwhile, UKIP's fox would be shot overnight. It is also pragmatic. It would give time for the Eurozone crisis to play out and for the prime minister to try and renegotiate, if he felt it worthwhile. We would then be clearer as to what the 'in' position represented.
There are calls from some to hold a set of referenda – one to seek a mandate for renegotiation, and another to accept or reject the new terms. If such an offer was made by the Prime Minister then one would be foolish to object. However, such an approach would not be the best option.
First of all, there can be little doubt that the British are critical of the EU – we are by some margin the most Eurosceptic population in the union. This is widely accepted by EU leaders. A mandate-seeking referendum is unnecessary. It would also be expensive – we found this week the AV referendum alone cost £75 million.
Secondly, such a referendum would not be politically astute. By directly going to the electorate and bypassing Parliament, other political parties could be let off the hook. They could equivocate, obfuscate and fudge their positions – a continuation of the present practice. This would not help voters or the Conservative party. By legislating, Labour and Liberal MPs would have to declare their hand for the electorate to see. This could be very useful in the rocky road ahead.
David Cameron is a leader who, like Blair before him, defines himself in opposition to his own party. He is not completely comfortable when popular with his Parliamentary party. He understands that Conservatives need to reach out beyond their own party if they are to succeed. It is a difficult balance to maintain. Blair succeeded in carrying his party with him because he won three successive election victories – albeit in the most benign of economic climates.
The Prime Minister’s EU veto last December was right for the country and proved to be popular. His forthcoming European speech could also be such a defining moment. By legislating for a referendum in this Parliament, he would be aligning himself with his Parliamentary party, the party at large and, most importantly, the British electorate. Whilst penning his Europe speech over mince pies and Christmas cheer, he should perhaps reflect on this.