By Matthew Barrett
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David Cameron has just finished taking questions on his statement about his recent European Council summit meeting. There were 74 questions from backbenchers, and Cameron was in front of the House for 80 minutes. There was a full house (but few Lib Dems, and no Clegg), a good atmosphere, and big beasts (Obsorne, Hague, etc) in support. The whole business felt like an EU-centric PMQs.
The Prime Minister's prepared remarks outlined his defence of the British economy, and unwillingness for Britain to be dragged into any European banking union:
"[O]n the specific proposal of a banking union, I ensured that Britain will not be part of any common deposit guarantees or under the jurisdiction of any single European financial supervisor. I am very clear that British taxpayers will not be guaranteeing any Eurozone banks. And I am equally clear that we need proper supervision of our banks but British banks will be supervised by the Bank of England, not the ECB."
The Prime Minister also had good news for British businesses:
"[A]longside this are clear commitments to complete the single market in areas like services, energy and digital where Britain will be one of the prime beneficiaries. And the agreed plan included dates and times by when these steps should be completed. We also agreed to go ahead with the European patent court. Businesses have complained for decades that they needed 27 patents to protect their intellectual property. This problem will now be solved."
"There are those who argue for an in-out referendum now. I don’t agree with that because I don’t believe leaving the EU would be best for Britain. Nor do I believe that voting to preserve the exact status quo would be right either. As I wrote yesterday, I don’t agree that the status quo is acceptable. But just as I believe it would be wrong to have an immediate in-out referendum so it would also be wrong to rule out any type of referendum for the future."
"First, recognise that in the short term the priority for Europe is to deal with the instability and chaos. Second, over time take the opportunities for Britain to shape its relationship with Europe in ways that advance our national interest in free trade, open markets and co-operation. That should mean, as I argued yesterday, less Europe not more Europe. Less cost, less bureaucracy, less meddling in issues that belong to nation states. Third, all party leaders will have to address this question. But it follows from my argument that far from ruling out a referendum for the future as a fresh deal in Europe becomes clear, we should consider how best to get the full consent of the British people."
The questions that followed Mr Cameron's statement were revealing: there was not a huge majority of Eurosceptic questions, but a narrow one. Many MPs asked questions which were supportive of the Prime Minister – who sounded very passionate about staying in the EU. I've made some notes of the most interesting ones:
- Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) – one of five PPS' who have written to Mr Cameron seeking assurances about a referendum – said the public was sick of broken promises by Prime Ministers with regard to referendums, and asked the Prime Minister if he could see the "attraction" of passing in this Parliament a commitment to a referendum in the next Parliament. Mr Cameron said he took Burns' point "seriously", but a referendum lock was sufficient, and in any case, Europe will have changed so much by the next Parliament that a referendum may be irrelevant. Burns' course, therefore was not the right one to go down.
- Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury), Richard Harrington (Watford) and Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) were the only two MPs to ask almost-Europhile questions. Both said Britain needs access to the single market, and a voice around the European table. Mr Cameron agreed.
- Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) said Britons wanted the European relationship they voted for in the 1970s: a trading one. He asked the Prime Minister why other European nations would allow us to to renegotiate with them. The Prime Minister did not answer directly, but praised our ability to have a say in the rules of the single market.
- Philip Davies (Shipley) asked a particularly spikey question – he reminded the Prime Minister that "he is in coalition with Conservatives as well" – saying Mr Cameron should get ahead of the curve and argue for a referendum now. The Prime Minister was less convinced.
- David TC Davies (Monmouth) pointed out that current European interference towards Britain was at its highest since the Reformation. Would the Prime Minister rather a second referendum or a second Reformation, Davies asked. Mr Cameron had a little trouble answering "being a wishy, washing Anglican", he said.
- Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) said it would be better to commit to a referendum for the next Parliament now, since the result of the next election is not guaranteed.
- John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) – who wrote the 100-MP letter calling for a referendum commitment – said his proposal would mean a referendum in several years' time, when the Eurozone may be less chaotic. The Prime Minister nevertheless gave his standard answer that we don't know what Europe will look like further down the line, so cannot commit to a referendum. Baron shook his head at the answer.
- James Clappison (Hertsmere) noted that our relationship with the EU has always been one of "ever closer union" – despite us merely signing up to the EEC. Should a future referendum include a full explanation of "ever closer union", he asked. The Prime Minister stated his opposition to ever closer union, but said we should work with the EU on the single market.