In a swirling vortex of hype and divulged excerpts, Prime Minister David Cameron gave his awaited speech on Britain’s place in the European Union (EU) at Bloomberg’s UK Headquarters. In 37 minutes, the Prime Minister’s speech stroked along the veins of history, from the legions of Caesar, to the catastrophic conflicts that ripped Europe asunder in the 20th century, to the future of the “new global race of nations”, for wealth, jobs and prosperity.
David Cameron elaborated on what he believed the three main challenges for the EU today: the Eurozone and its problems are creating dramatic changes in the EU, the crisis of European competitiveness, and the “gap between the EU and its citizens which has grown dramatically in recent years”. The Prime Minister said that the “biggest danger to the European Union comes not from those who advocate change, but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy”. Whilst stating repeatedly that he wished for Britain to remain a member of the EU, he sought fundamentally and change what the EU is, and to build “a new European Union, fit for the 21st century”.
These changes would be constructed around five principles: competitiveness in the single market, flexibility for member states, powers should flow towards member states, democratic accountability through national parliaments, and fairness between the members in the Eurozone and outside it. After the flux surrounding the Eurozone members has finally abated, and when the new rules are written and assembled for all member states of the European Union, the British people will have an In-Out referendum on the EU in about 2017. David Cameron said in his speech that:
It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle the European question in British politics. I say to the British people: this will be your decision.
This will be the first British referendum on the European Union since its 1993 reformation under the Maastricht Treaty, our second national referendum since the 1975 referendum on our membership of the European Economic Community, and the first EU membership referendum to be promised by a Conservative Prime Minister.
Labour Party leader and Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband repeatedly pressed David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Question, asserting that the PM was not clear over his position to stay in the EU. During the flurry of exchanges, Mr Miliband defiantly said:
My position is no – we don’t want an In-Out referendum.
He argued that the promise of a referendum would create a dangerous level of uncertainty, which would plague Britain’s economic position. The outward fragility of Mr Miliband’s position disguises an important concession: under his leadership, Labour would not seek to repeal the ‘referendum lock’ for any major transfers of power from Britain to the European Union. Previously, Labour’s Shadow Cabinet called the ‘referendum lock’ “unnecessary”, “a dog’s breakfast” and a “political gesture” to Conservative MPs.
Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg also used a similar argument around uncertainty. Mr Clegg said it was “wholly implausible” to think that the rules of the EU could be rewritten to “benefit us and disadvantage everybody else”. He also said that the aims of David Cameron’s vision for the EU were “vague”, and it wasn’t worth “tying” Britain “in knots”.
Nigel Farage MEP, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, said in a BBC interview:
I think UKIP has changed the political agenda in this country and really today is our proudest achievement to date, but now the real work begins.
Caroline Lucas MP, the only Green MP, said she supported a referendum, but asserted that David Cameron was using an EU referendum as “a way of blackmailing the public into a Tory vote”.
The French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabias said he wanted “the British to bring all their positive characteristics to Europe”, but “you can’t do Europe à la carte”. Similarly, the German Foreign Minister Guido Westerville stated: “Germany wants the United Kingdom to remain an active member of the European Union”, but again, “cherry-picking is not an option”.
The Debate Ahead
Polls by Youguv suggest there is an erratic demand to stay in the European Union: on the 11th January 2013, 36% of people surveyed said they wanted to stay in the EU, whilst only a week later, that had jumped to 40%. The desire to leave the EU fell sharply from 42% to 34% over that same period. The same polls show that if a renegotiation had occurred, and David Cameron assured the British public that the nation’s interests were truly protected and recommended our continuing membership, the percentage of surveyed people voting to stay in the EU would climb to 55%.
Over the next few years, the European question will subsume all others. Whilst progressive politicians point to ‘right-wing media misinformation’ to explain public dissatisfaction with the EU, but as David Cameron identifies, it may derive from the “growing frustration that the EU is seen as something that is done to people rather than acting on their behalf”. However, there are a number of common misconceptions surrounding the EU, such the mistaken belief that unpopular European Court of Human Rights decisions are the fault of the EU, and that Britain receives little money from the Common Agricultural Policy. In terms of cash amounts, the UK is the fifth largest recipient of EU agricultural spending, receiving €3.3bn annually; behind France (€8.7bn), Spain (€5.8bn), Germany (€5.5bn) and Italy (€4.6bn). In per capita terms, the UK is the 19th biggest recipient, getting €53.05 for every man, woman and child. The five largest per capita recipients are Greece (€212.81), Ireland (€191.05), Denmark (€173.40), France (€133.44) and Spain (€126.09).
The battlegrounds are being forged, from a philosophical discussion whether a country should be part of a political and economic union at all, and whether a European Union, in David Cameron’s design, free from excrescences can be achieved; to a narrower debate over whether our current membership fees are represent a worthwhile expenditure.