By Matthew Barrett
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
The comment pages of the Sunday Telegraph are well-furnished today. Both David Cameron and Liam Fox have taken a view on a European referendum – and there is, it is fair to say, a difference in their positions.
“Yet the fact is the British people are not happy with what they have, and neither am I. That’s why I said on Friday that the problem with an in/out referendum is that it offers a single choice, whereas what I want — and what I believe the vast majority of the British people want — is to make changes to our relationship.”
In other words, carry on with the much-fabled, but never-yet-successul renegotiation strategy – but:
“As I have said, for me the two words “Europe” and “referendum” can go together, particularly if we really are proposing a change in how our country is governed, but let us get the people a real choice first.”
He says a referendum is a possibility, but there must be a “real choice” in it. In other words, we must pursue a referendum on renegotiation, not leaving. But if there was a renegotiation referendum under Cameron, he would surely avoid setting out the Government’s “red lines”. He would argue that this would “give away our negotiating hand”, that “we don’t anticipate failure”, and so on. There is no guarantee, in any event, that a Cameron referendum would result in us successfuly renegotiating anything, and there is certainly no guarantee of leaving.
Liam Fox’s article, on the other hand, makes him the most senior Tory to suggest leaving the EU. He does, at first, take the renegotiation line:
“I do not believe that Britain’s national interest is served by its current relationship with the EU. … I believe this is the moment for Britain to negotiate a new, looser and largely economic relationship with our Continental neighbours. It is not we in Britain who have brought about the fundamental change in the nature of the EU – we stayed outside a single currency project whose flaws have turned out to be exactly as we envisaged. But that change is the new reality and it must be faced.”
Fox also rejects an in/out referendum:
“There are those who call for a simple “in or out” referendum to be held in Britain soon. I believe this would be a huge error with enormous tactical risks. It is not a coincidence that some convinced euro-enthusiasts support this course of action.”
But – crucially – Fox says that if Europeans are unwilling to let us renegotiate hefty changes in our relationship, we should leave the EU:
“Rather, I would like to see Britain negotiate a new relationship on the basis that, if we achieved it and our future relationship was economic rather than political, we would advocate acceptance in a referendum of this new dynamic. If, on the other hand, others would not accede to our requests for a rebalancing in the light of the response to the euro crisis, then we would recommend rejection and potential departure from the EU. For my own part, life outside the EU holds no terror.”
This makes things awkward for Cameron. Firstly, Fox says “this is the moment” for renegotiations, while Cameron is vague about the timing of any talks. Secondly, by saying that if we don’t get what we want we should leave, Fox has driven a coach and horses through Cameron’s pro-renegotiation argument by anticipating possible failure. If you’re prepared to acknowledge the possibility of failure then you might as well declare your “red lines” in advance of negotiations – adding that if they’re broken, you’re not frightened to leave. The difference between the two standpoints means David Cameron will probably not be able to kick the referendum question into the long medium grass just yet – which was, presumably, his aim in writing today.