Prime Minister offers British people the chance to determine our relationship with Europe
This morning, the Prime Minister gave his long-awaited speech on Europe (he was due to deliver it on Friday, but he rightly postponed it given events in Algeria).
Our relationship with the rest of Europe has dogged British politics throughout my lifetime. Everyone agrees that we want to have good relations with our neighbours and that there are many issues where it makes sense to co-operate. But people have very different views of the European Union as an institution. Opinion polls show that a significant proportion of the electorate want us to leave.
Some people worry about how many of the laws that affect us are agreed not by our Parliament but in Europe. They also worry about the cost of the EU and the amount of regulation it puts in place, which they argue is making it harder for Britain to compete with the emerging economies of the East (Europe’s share of world output is projected to fall by almost a third over the next 20 years). Others say that the time of the nation state has passed, that we can achieve more if we pool our sovereignty. They warn that were we to leave, we would still want access to the single market and that would mean we would still have to make a financial contribution to the EU and obey the rules like Norway and Switzerland do, but we would no longer have any say in making those rules. They warn that businesses would leave the UK. And whilst they admit that the EU isn’t perfect, they argue that if we engage rather than carping from the sidelines we can reform it.
Why are we more sceptical about the EU than other European countries? It probably has something to do with geography, being an island just off the continental mainland. We are Europeans, but a little apart. And it probably has something to do with history too. The EU’s origins lie in the aftermath of the Second World War, in a determination in Germany and France to bind their two countries closely together so that they would never again go to war – Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister at the time, said the aim was to "make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible". If you are a continental European, the lesson of the Second World War is that nationalism is a dangerous thing that had to be constrained. But if you’re British, the lesson is different: it was our national spirit that helped us to fight on alone. Of course, we don’t have to be a prisoner to either our geography or our history, but we’d be daft to pretend that they haven’t influenced our attitudes.
Whatever the reasons, there’s no disputing that we are more sceptical about the EU than other members. And this isn’t a left/right issue – it divides all three of the main parties, particularly my party.
We need to settle the issue once and for all. People under the age of 55 have never had a chance to have their say and many of those who did vote in the 1975 referendum argue that the current EU is very different to the Common Market they voted for. So I think the Prime Minister was right to say that we should have a referendum.
He was also right to say that now is not the time for two reasons.
First, the EU is going to have to change profoundly over the next few years. The Eurozone countries have learned what those of us who opposed the single currency warned - you can’t have monetary union without fiscal union (in layman’s terms, if you are going to share a currency, then you also have to have common rules over borrowing). They are going to have to integrate more. We don’t want to be part of that. In the past, our policy in such a situation would have been to try to block further integration - to avoid a two speed Europe with the UK in the slow lane. But this time, things are different. It is in our economic interests that the eurozone sorts out its problems – we need them to integrate further (but we also need to make sure there are safeguards so that the other members of the Union can’t be out-voted if the Eurozone members start to vote as a bloc).
Second, the fact that there are going to have to be treaty changes anyway provides an opportunity for us to renegotiate the nature of our membership.
Most people share this analysis, but some say the Prime Minister shouldn’t be raising the possibility of us leaving. There is a paradox here. It is clear from his speech that the Prime Minister doesn’t want to leave the EU - he wants to change our relationship with it, but remain a member (as do I). But unless he convinces his opposite numbers that us leaving is a real possibility, they may not agree to the changes to our relationship which he is going to need if he is to win the referendum.
I know some will react to this speech with cynicism - they'll say he promised a referendum on getting out of Europe before the last Election and hasn’t delivered. Actually, he didn’t promise anything of the kind - he said there would be a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty if it wasn't ratified by the time he became Prime Minister and in the event it was. This is one of those situations where the truth doesn’t matter however - it’s perception that counts and the perception is that he didn't keep his promise so he needed to be specific today to convince the cynics. Here - in his own words - is what he said:
“The next Conservative Manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative Government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament...And when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms; or come out altogether...Legislation will be drafted before the next election. And if a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year. And we will complete this negotiation and hold this referendum within the first half of the next parliament”.
This was a really important speech. As I said at the start, it's an issue that has dogged British politics for years. It needed to be resolved and now the leader of one of the main parties has promised to do just that. Ed Miliband was hopeless in the House of Commons - unable to say what his position is, despite having had plenty of notice of what the Prime Minister was going to say. So voters in Croydon Central who feel strongly about this issue now know that if they want to have their say, they need to vote Conservative at the next Election.