Remember 1975? That was the question – or warning, perhaps – that seemed to permeate ConservativeHome’s joint fringe event with Business for Britain, Remember 1975? That was the question – or warning, perhaps – that seemed to permeate ConservativeHome’s joint fringe event with Business for Britain, “What should the ‘red-lines’ be for EU renegotiation?”
It was Liam Fox MP, the first panellist, who set it off by discussing how his parents voted in that year’s referendum on Europe. Some people, such as his father, who voted to remain in the Common Market, had been left “resentful that they voted to join one entity and got another”. What had been sold as a sensible, economic deal soon became a wider, political one. “They didn’t have a say on that.”
This was a theme that Ruth Lea of Arbuthnot Banking Group eagerly elaborated upon. Even the Single Market, taken by itself, isn’t what people think it is. “The Single Market has regulations running right through it like a stick of rock,” she said. “That’s not how it is generally portrayed in the media.” This led to her bold opening proposition: “We need to start off by leaving the Single Market.”
And then Syed Kamall, an MEP for London, also talked about European overreach. As it was in the 1970s, so it is now: Brussels is always looking to expand its purview. Or, as Kamall put it, “I overhear my continental colleagues openly discussing a federal Europe.” And he recalled the remarks of one official, discussing a referendum on the European Constitution: “How can we trust a decision as important as this to the people? We’re the ones who know about it.”A fellow who certainly does know about it – whatever the EU officials might say – is the chief executive of Business for Britain, and the fourth panellist at this event, Matthew Elliott. He sought to dispel some of the broader presumptions about what businesses think of David Cameron’s referendum plan. Not only does a “big proportion of businesses want a fundamental renegotiation of the European treaties,” but they also “like the fact that there’s some stability to this process”.
Elliott, and the other panellists, raised the 1970s in another context: the negotiations that preceded the 1975 referendum were, in many respects, an example of how negotiations shouldn’t be done. Britain didn’t actually gain much from those talks, and what it did gain was hurriedly oversold to the voting public. “We don’t want a repeat now,” was how Fox put it.
So, how do we avoid such a repeat? Everyone agreed that an important part of our renegotiation strategy – in the event of a Conservative government after 2015 – should be the threat of Britain hightailing it from the European Union. And this threat, said the panellists, is implicit in Cameron’s promise of a referendum. Again, the words of Fox: “Our European partners will know that we might walk because the people might say that we should walk.”
This way, Britain might gain more that Europe wants to give: treaty change, a special status based around trade, withdrawal from European courts, you name it. “Europe has no appetite for lots of things,” explained Kamall, “but reality bites.”
Which brings us to the question of what Britain ought to demand – what should its “red lines” be? And, in response, the panel was at its most disparate. Fox disputed the very concept of red lines, believing that it skews the debate to “what we want Brussels to give back, not what we are willing to share”. Kamall agreed, to a point, but added that “if there has to be a red line, it should be to undo this idea of ever closer political union”. Whilst Lea suggested that something more drastic than negotiation would need to take place if Britain is to get what it wants: “I think it’s almost impossible to have the relationship we want without leaving.”
And if Lea is right? Her argument was that Britain is fundamentally significant enough to stand by itself – “for goodness’ sake, we’re the sixth largest economy in the world” – and that countries such as Germany would hardly sever all ties with a major trading partner. But she wasn’t alone in holding to this argument. Elliott put it bluntly: “If we do have to leave the EU, it’s not the end of the world.”
There was a unity of purpose between the panellists – all wanted a refashioned relationship between Britain and Europe – even if they disagreed on some of the specifics. When a French journalist asked whether the Conservative Party could resolve those specifics between 2015 and a possible referendum in 2017, Fox responded that the current situation is no bad thing. A debate is being had and, in the end, it’s more detailed and involving than the one that preceded 1975.