By Tim Montgomerie
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There is a growing consensus among Tory Eurosceptics that the
question in any referendum on Britain's future relationship with the EU
should essentially be 'the common market or out'. This is what Boris Johnson has proposed
and it's certainly my preferred choice too. It's based on the idea that
we have a referendum at some point in the next parliament* after a successful process of renegotiation with our EU allies.
key question concerns the willingness of our EU partners to renegotiate
with us. Both Ukippers and Europhiles seem united in the view that that
willingness does not exist. Today's Guardian leads with Lord Kerr's concern that Britain won't get close to getting every
other EU state to sign up to anything like the kind of looser
relationship that most Britons appear to want. Kerr, who helped
negotiate Britain's Maastricht opt-outs with John Major, says that if
Cameron offers an In/Out vote but then fails to get a good deal Britain
could end up leaving the EU 'by accident':
could find yourself in an awkward situation in which you are stuck with
a referendum pledge on the new deal and there is no new deal, or there
is a new deal so trivial that it is mocked by Ukip and the press. In
either scenario, it seems to me there is a risk that Cameron finds
himself arguing we must go. I am sure that it is not what he wants to
I read Lord Kerr's intervention – and its appearance alongside similar advice from Lords Brittan, Heseltine and Mandelson, all quoted in The Guardian piece
– as a pre-emptive attempt to influence Cameron's looming EU speech.
They hate the idea of Britain leaving the EU and don't want the Tory
leader to even put the option on the table. I don't discount the idea
that EU leaders will refuse to renegotiate Britain's relationship but, like Michael Gove,
we certainly don't maximise our chances by going to the negotiating
table without any threat to leave. Moreover, EU structures are certain
to change over the next few years and we can threaten to veto the
changes that €uro states want if we do not, in turn, get the looser
relationship we desire.
renegotiation doesn't happen then the chances of Britain leaving do
increase. I've been sceptical of opinion polls that suggest the British
people are ready to leave – the latest one pointing to a 51% to 40% advantage for quitting.
In referenda there is nearly always a big swing to the status quo and
even a timid resetting of Britain's EU relationship would increase that
swing – especially if UK business and overseas investors mount scare
campaigns (which they will). The one thing that will counter such a
swing will be any hints of high-handedness from EU officials or EU
leaders. That includes an unwillingness to negotiate with Britain and
the kind of insulting idea propogated by Herman Van Rompuy in recent days that Britain would condemn itself to a "desert"-like existence if it chose to restore its national independence.
One EU politician that does appear to thinking things through in a sensible way is the Eurosceptics' long-time bête noire Jacques Delors. Seriously. As reported in today's Sun and Times (£) the former EU chief recognises that Britain may want out. He tells the German newspaper Handelsblatt
that “if the British cannot support the trend towards more integration
in Europe, we can nevertheless remain friends, but on a different
basis." He continues: "I could imagine a form such as a European
economic area or a free trade agreement.” The Times quotes him as
affirming that Britain was “strategically and economically important”
and should stay “a privileged partner”. That "privileged" word if
translated correctly is significant. Some people say that the EU would
punish Britain if it opted to leave. Outers have always said that UK-EU
trade relations would necessitate more reasonableness. Monsieur Delors seems to be pointing the way towards that reasonableness.
* Legislation would need to be passed in this parliament to guarantee that referendum. As John Baron MP argued on ConHome a few days ago – voters aren't go to believe another manifesto promise of a referendum.