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David Cameron’s long-awaited speech of 23 January on the EU was certainly a game-changer. It was also a fraudulent and reckless gamble. It was a game-changer because it represented a dramatic shift in Cameron’s position: formerly, he had promised only a referendum to approve or reject such changes he might manage to make in Britain’s relationship with the EU. Yesterday he promised a totally different kind of referendum: whether to stay in the EU, or to leave it. At a stroke this has legitimised the head-banging Europhobes and brought them into the mainstream of British politics. The motives for this U-turn are obvious: to outflank UKIP and reduce its electoral threat to the Conservative party, to appease his back-bench Europhobes and the Europhobic media, and thus to create an illusion of party unity. It is also designed to wrong-foot the Labour party by depicting it as afraid to let the people decide on Britain’s future in the EU.

cameronThe speech is fraudulent, because its logical implications are the opposite of the real position. The one section of the speech which rang true was the peroration, powerfully setting out the case for Britain remaining in the EU.  Cameron understands as well as anyone why Britain should remain in the EU.  He knows that to leave it would be catastrophic for British interests. He plans to emulate Harold Wilson’s tactics in 1975 when Wilson, a much better tactician than Cameron, went through the motions of “renegotiating” the terms of Britain’s membership of the EEC, pronouncing the renegotiation a triumph, and holding a referendum on it which approved Britain’s continued membership by a margin of 2 to 1.  The difference between then and now is that Wilson could predict reasonably accurately the referendum result that he wanted, namely to stay in. Cameron cannot possibly know now how a referendum in five years’ time would go. Everything would depend on how the EU evolves between now and then. Radical change is certain, whatever concessions the British government might seek, not because of British sabre-rattling but because of the measures that will be necessary to save the Euro, and the consequent need to work out a new relationship between EU members inside the Eurozone and those, including Britain, outside it. The negotiation of these changes will offer extensive opportunities for reforms of aspects of the EU regarded, not just by Britain but also by some other EU members, as unsatisfactory. It’s quite unnecessary for Cameron to make such a drama of this prospect, which will present itself whatever he does. Moreover, if these changes include transfers of powers from member states, including Britain, to the EU, Britain will have to hold a referendum on them under a UK law of 2011 accepted by all three main political parties.

The fraud is the pretence that Cameron is in favour of Britain leaving the EU unless he secures a series of ill-defined concessions, and that he will campaign  for Britain to leave the EU in five years’ time if he has failed to secure those concessions – the unavoidable implication of his EU speech yesterday, which he dares not explicitly acknowledge. The gamble is the promise of an in-or-out referendum in five years’ time, whose result could well be disastrous for Britain. Even in the almost inconceivable event of Cameron retrieving from Europe all the powers and competences that he wants to bring back, it must be obvious that any gain for Britain from such concessions cannot possibly be of such significance as to determine whether or not Britain stays in the EU. That issue is far too momentous to be decided on such inherently marginal grounds.  (The gamble is the more reckless because of his apparent disregard for its likely effects on the outcome of the Scottish independence referendum in the autumn of next year, making the disintegration of the UK under Cameron’s premiership just that bit more likely.)

Labour now confronts two challenges, one difficult, the other more straightforward than much of the media seem to recognise. The difficult challenge will be to make the case against the repatriation of the powers which Cameron and the Europhobes want to get back from Europe. Labour needs to convince a sceptical public opinion that subjects such as the environment and the prevention of crime are best handled jointly on a European basis, not by each EU state individually, and certainly not by Britain on its own with the rest of Europe acting together. There may be a case for changes in the criteria for executing the European arrest warrant, but there is no possible case for abolishing it, still less for Britain alone to opt out of it. Even more significantly, Labour has a plain duty to oppose Cameron’s demand for a British opt-out from the controversial working hours directive and other EU regulations designed to protect the basic rights of employees throughout the EU. In particular, Labour, the Lib Dems and the unions should collaborate in opposing a UK opt-out from the regulations that prevent employers sacking their workers without the need to state a justification. Some business leaders in Britain would love to regain the power to hire and fire their workers at will – a licence to sack people on racial, gender or sexual orientation grounds without acknowledging them, or simply on a whim. Labour should expose this Tory ambition as exploitative, unfair and retrograde, supporting those in Europe who may be expected to resist any such opt-out for Britain on grounds of giving one member state an unfair competitive advantage over the rest, as well as on general grounds of workers’ basic rights.  Similarly, in seeking to ditch the working hours directive, Cameron shamelessly acts as the spokesman for the most unscrupulous of Britain’s bosses, and Labour should hammer away at exposing him in that role. The directive is an essential protection, not only for workers who might otherwise be forced to work unreasonable hours, but also for the public, whom the directive protects from (for example) flawed medical care by over-worked and exhausted junior hospital doctors.

The more straightforward challenge for Labour is to defend its opposition to an in-or-out referendum, either on the timetable proposed by Cameron, or at any other time determined years in advance. Currently there is no change in Britain’s relationship with Europe so significant as to justify a referendum which would risk having such potentially harmful consequences. To predict that in five years’ time changes will have occurred so significant as to require a referendum is absurd and arrogant. The decision on a referendum can only sensibly be taken in the light of circumstances at the time. Meanwhile, the legal requirement for a referendum if and when there is a proposal to transfer further powers from Britain to Europe is more than enough to protect our interests. Labour can perfectly well stick on this position, while exposing Cameron’s reckless promise as motivated purely by party political considerations and not by any calculation of the national interest.

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One interesting and revealing postscript:  It is widely forgotten that on 9 December 2011 Mr Cameron returned from a summit meeting in Brussels boasting that he had bravely defended British interests by vetoing an EU treaty, on the grounds that the rest of the EU had refused to satisfy the conditions he had laid down for refraining from exercising his veto. These conditions amounted to a series of demands which were mostly unconnected with the subject matter of the proposed treaty. In fact, our prime minister had not vetoed a treaty at all: there was no draft treaty in existence for him to veto. All he had done was to try to prevent the rest of the EU from using the Commission and other EU organs and facilities for the negotiation of a new treaty designed to impose more discipline on the Eurozone. In practice this shabby attempt was easily circumvented, and the only effect of Cameron’s attempted blackmail was to ensure that Britain alone was virtually excluded from having any input into the negotiations leading up to the new treaty. (The sad and shameful tale is related in more detail in an earlier post on this blog, here: it’s well worth reading.)  If that episode is a reliable indicator of Mr Cameron’s negotiating skills, and of the integrity of the account of his actions that he offers the British people, Labour should have no great difficulty in exposing the fraud, recklessness and ineptitude of the new Tory strategy for Europe, and the reactionary character of its real aims.

Brian

 

7 comments on Cameron’s EU speech: a fraud and a gamble

  • Julian Nundy says:

    I confess I was quite stunned by it, even though there was nothing really that surprising in the speech. 

    I would like to know what the Europhobes imagine will happen once the U.K. leaves? Instant milk and honey? When Norway is held up as an example, it would be nice to hear what the Norwegians have to say. My understanding is that most of the politicians there consider Norway as being isolated because it is unable to bring any pressure whatsoever to bear on the trade code laid down by Brussels which governs all trade on the continent. And surely what Britain is most interested in is trade? The idea that a pullout would result in instant Norwegian-like prosperity is just childish and laughable. Lest we forget, Norway, like Switzerland, is also a signatory to Schengen, unlike some others we could mention. 

    Hats off to one person, however: Rupert Murdoch. He has spent the last four decades dictating the U.K. agenda on Europe and hijacking any sensible debate.  He’s done well. 

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Julian. I suppose one new and surprising thing in the Cameron speech was the commitment to a referendum in five years’ time, not for or against any changes in the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU that he might have succeeded in negotiating after winning an overall majority for the Tories in 2015, but on whether Britain should stay in the EU or leave — a very different matter.

    As you say, the idea that if Britain were to leave the EU we would somehow enjoy prosperity on the scale of that other non-member, Norway, is ridiculous. Norway had the foresight to stash away most of her North Sea oil revenues during the boom years in a sovereign wealth fund, the proceeds from which she is living comfortably off now. By contrast, Mrs Thatcher and her successors spent ours. We are as usual victims of British politicians’ and businessmen’s chronic short-termism. Deferred gratification is what they don’t do.

    I see your point about the Dirty Digger, but he’s one of a handful of people to whom I couldn’t bring myself to raise my hat, even if I had one.
     

  • Tony Hatfield (@tonyhatfield) says:

    I don’t want to rake over the problems with referendums, but there’s  an additional one that might make the outcome of this even more problematical. Cameron proposes to hold it slap bang at the mid-term in the next parliament. Mid term is just about the worst possible time for any government to ask the voters  for their  support.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Tony. You make a very good point. Also, Cameron’s timetable assumes that between a UK general election some time in 2015 and two and a half years later in 2018, the EU will have completed its negotiation of a new treaty reforming the Eurozone, redefining the relationship between members and non-members of the Eurozone, debating and deciding on Cameron’s various demands for the repatriation of sundry competences (to which several member states will almost certainly object), and taken decisions on any other changes proposed by other EU governments — and that all this will have been embodied in a new draft treaty which will have been ratified by all 27 (then probably 28 or 29) member states including some whose ratification will have to be confirmed in a referendum. All in 30 months! Pull the other one.  

  • Gavin McCrone says:

    Excellent. I agree with every word.

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, Gavin. I’m glad to have the endorsement of a prominent and experienced economist, public servant and academic.

  • Julian Nundy says:

    Brian. I think on reflection that I had been secretly hoping for some sort of glimmer of subtlety when push came to shove. Silly me. 

    Brian writes: Thanks again. No, I don’t think Mr Cameron does subtle, any more than he does deferred gratification. Subtlety was no doubt frowned on at the Bullingdon club as a sign of probable deviancy.

  • Richard Thomas says:

    It’s a pity that Cameron forgot his Kipling when trying to appease the Europhobes:
     
    And that is called paying the Danegeld
    But we’ve proved it again and again
    That if you’ve once paid him the Danegeld,
    You’ll never get rid of the Dane

  • David Campbell says:

    Brian – A bit late to comment, but I should like to say how refreshing it is to see you questioning the received wisdom about the repatriation of powers. Unreasonable to expect perfection here. There has, inevitably, to be a measure of give and take, and some of the points you make are arguable. But the experience on the whole is that the pluses far outweigh the minuses, and it’s good to see this stated for once.
    Another myth I personally would like to see challenged is the much repeated one that we respect EU rules while others don’t. Despite years of professional involvement in trade issues, I never saw this slur convincingly substantiated. And slur it is. The sad thing is that it was almost always used as an excuse for lowering standards rather than as an argument for securing better multilateral enforcement of them.
    TWithout wishing to challenge your argument, with which I agree, it would be unrealistic to pretend that the Labour Party, of all people, are well placed to change public attitudes. Wilson set the pace as far as paying Danegeld to the eurosceptics is concerned, leaving Cameron an impossible hand, and it’s Blair who gave him a role model for distorting UN mandates. All the parties now seem to find presentation more important that substance, but the acknowledged masters of this particular black art are, once again, Labour. If only all the political parties could get together and recognise that the public doesn’t share their obsessions a consensus might be possible, at least on the basic proposition that we are a country whose interests are best served by respect for international law. That, at any rate, should be the starting point, even though it would involve some painful admission of past shortcomings.
    The immediate impact of Cameron’s initiative has done the No campaign in Scotland no favours. But its implications may prove helpful in one practical respect. If a referendum on Europe needs to be informed by some clarification of possible outcomes, the government may come round to applying this principle here.
    Ever,
    David

    Brian writes: Thank you for this, David. I agree with almost everything you say, although I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you write of Labour returning to the Black Arts of presentation over substance; if anything, I would have thought Ed Miliband somewhat deficient in presentation and getting steadily better on substance, if not yet on detail. I especially agree about the need for serious, ideally non-partisan, debate on the likely consequences of the various possible outcomes of the two future referendums (one, if you don’t think the Tories will be in government after 2015, or whenever the next general election takes place).

  • David Campbell says:

    Miliband isn’t toning down the debating society rhetoric all that much and is far too ready to hit below the belt. Cameron on the whole doesn’t do this, and is the better man because of it. Cameron’s professed admiration of Blair is particularly unfortunate, because he seems determined to imitate him over the wrong issues, in areas where he is out of his depth.
    There’s a paradox about non-partisan debate where the Scottish referendum is concerned. The No campaign have to work consensually, and look the weaker for it. But this is partly because so far they have been relying on opportunist arguments, instead of articulating a positive vision.

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