Europe: the referendum countdown

On 23 January 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron delivered his much-anticipated speech on Europe in London (the so-called ‘Tantric Speech’ that was months in the making). It was a speech designed to keep the Europhobic Tory backbenchers and UKIP at bay whilst reassuring his European partners that Great Britain was still on their side. Did he achieve either of these aims? That depends on whom you ask.

How will history judge the British Prime Minister? Cameron the Reformer or Cameron the Deceiver?

How will history judge the British Prime Minister? Cameron the Reformer or Cameron the Deceiver?

There’s no denying Cameron’s skills in oratory and statesmanship. The speech had an upbeat, constructive tone and he was keen to point out that his concerns, far from being parochial, were for the whole of the European Union. The PM stressed the importance of Britain’s place in Europe and Europe’s place in the world. He did a fine job of explaining the root causes of the British people’s suspicions of the EU. For example, many business leaders had urged the previous Labour government, back in the 1990’s, to take Britain into the Eurozone. Hindsight has shown us that not doing so was a wise decision, yet where was the contrition from these scions of commerce? Is it any wonder that there is so much mistrust among the populace with the EU economy in such a parlous state? Cameron outlined three major challenges for the Union:

  • problems in the Eurozone, which lacks effective governance and structures;
  • a crisis of European competitiveness in the face of fast-growing economies such as China and India;
  • a gap between the EU and its citizens which represents a lack of democratic accountability that is felt acutely in Britain.

The Prime Minister urged the need for fundamental changes within the EU to remedy these problems. The trouble is, making such changes would involve a massive shake-up of the acquis communautaire, the body of legislation which makes up European Union law. While I agree that some changes are necessary, such a far-reaching move would be a bureaucratic headache, generating more red tape, and therefore creating a situation from which Cameron is trying to move away. He spoke of repatriating some EU powers back to the UK – most likely, this will include opt-outs from policing, criminal justice and employment laws. However, I am not convinced that the removal of the Working Time Directive will foster significant economic growth, as many British business leaders claim. Moreover, I support the law on principle. The limitation on working hours is there to protect employees from being exploited, so that they do not end up having to work almost every waking hour, running the risk of a nervous breakdown. I have seen, first-hand, the callous disregard some employers show towards those who work for them. This EU directive is there to curb such cruelty; I only wish that it were enforced more effectively.

The speech was well-received by some in Europe, including BP Chairman Carl-Henric Svenberg, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Dutch politicians Halbe Zijlstra and Geert Wilders. The UK is not the bogeyman of Europe, as the Continental gutter-press would have us believe, but a vital partner whose free-trade liberalism is a necessary antidote to Central European mercantilism. Germany, meanwhile, shares many of Britain’s interests and concerns and most European observers stressed their enthusiasm for the UK’s continued presence in the EU. On the other hand, Cameron came in for a lot of criticism and many consider his demands to be nothing short of blackmail. Britain cannot, argued French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, enjoy a kind of bespoke arrangement with the EU, picking and choosing laws according to whether they suit her or not. This is a fair point. Given that there are 27 member-states, what is to stop any of the others from making similar demands, should such concessions be made? The situation would be chaotic, diametrically opposite to Cameron’s vision of a streamlined Europe.

While the Prime Minister made clear his desire for the UK to stay within the EU, he nevertheless made a pledge to hold a referendum on the burning question by 2017, provided the Conservative Party is re-elected in two years’ time. It was this point which caused the most consternation among pro-Europeans. Deputy PM and toothless lion Nick Clegg warned of a ‘chilling effect’ of jobs and growth, as the dark spectre of Britain’s exit from the Union will cause uncertainty and deter foreign investment. Cameron has taken a gamble by announcing this referendum. On the one hand, the 2017 deadline has been interpreted by many on the Continent as a further step towards the exit, while the Tory backbenchers and UKIP have become emboldened. The PM, on the other hand, believes that he has bought himself time, correctly pointing out that at present “we don’t know what the future holds”. Indeed, we do not, but the situation may not be any clearer in 2017. Back in 2008, when the trouble began, few people foresaw that Europe’s economic hardships would last for five years. The Continent is as troubled as ever and the British economy, among others, is flat-lining. Cameron has four years to convince a disgruntled electorate that staying in the European Union is in their interests. This duty is not his alone, however: the think-tank Business for New Europe (BNE) needs to get its act together and ‘sell’ Europe to a sceptical public. Labour leader Ed Miliband, too, has a crucial role to play in this. According to a recent YouGov poll, the Labour Party are ahead of the Conservatives by 6%. If Miliband, who opposes any kind of referendum, can maintain or widen his lead by the 2015 General Election, any talk of Britain leaving the EU may end up being purely academic.

In July 2012, Foreign Secretary William Hague initiated a ‘Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union’. Essentially, this is an audit of Britain’s financial contribution to the EU versus the benefits she receives and the various perks or hindrances EU laws and regulations bring. It is my fervent hope that the review, scheduled for publication in the autumn of 2014, will finally settle the long-running debate over whether European integration is in our national interests or not. Many of my countrymen demand an immediate referendum, but this is impossible while the lack of information on such an important issue prohibits a level playing field. A referendum held tomorrow would be, in the well-chosen words of one Richard Simmons from Oxford, a “plebiscite of the ignorant”. The anti-Europe brigade have beaten their chests and played to the crowd for long enough, but those who believe in the European project now need to work harder, because the clock is ticking.

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