The New Year is a time for resolving to do the things you should have been doing or should have done in the previous year. For David Cameron, that means making his position on Europe clear in a speech he intends to deliver in the Netherlands later this month.
Douglas Alexander pre-empted the speech in the New Statesman this week, asking Cameron to make a decision that is best for the United Kingdom and not his leadership. You can read it here.
As Douglas Alexander points out; “the timing and content of this speech have little to do with policy and everything to do with politics”. Cameron has always been in a particularly tight spot when it comes to Europe; with coalition partners that are pro-EU, and his outward support for the UK’s continued membership; he has to contend with a large portion of his party who think of little else but an in/out referendum.
Douglas makes a strong case against a referendum in his article, the most important point being:
“Announcing an in/out referendum halfway through this parliament to take place more than halfway through the next, given the Conservatives’ hostility towards Europe, could risk up to seven years of economic uncertainty, threatening vital investment and effectively playing Roulette with the country’s economic future.”
In fact, Cameron’s own Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has stated in the House of Commons that “It would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.”
At this point it is unlikely that Cameron will announce an in/out referendum. More likely it will be a statement of intent to repatriate a number of powers from the European Union. I have said many times before that this idea is rather fantastical, as it would mean treaty renegotiations. Eamon Gilmore, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, has stated recently that “We’re either a union or we’re not… The EU is not an à la carte menu”.
So when Cameron fails to get these powers back from Europe, as he no doubt will, he may find himself backed in to a corner with his party and forced to hold that in/out referendum.
The dangers of this have been pointed out by a number of business leaders who yesterday wrote a letter to the Financial Times stating that his current stance on Europe risked ‘destabalising the British economy’. The letter is signed by businessmen including Sir Richard Branson, chairman of the Virgin Group, Sir Michael Rake of BT, Jan du Plessis of Rio Tinto and Malcolm Sweeting, the senior partner at Clifford Chance, a major law firm.
The letter states that:
“We must be very careful not to call for a wholesale renegotiation of our EU membership which would almost certainly be rejected. To call for such a move in these circumstances would be to put our membership of the EU at risk and create damaging uncertainty for British business, which are the last things the Prime Minister would want to do.”
When everyone from the business world to people within your own Cabinet are telling you that the path you are on is folly, it might be time to take some notice and stand up to that part of your party leading you down this dangerous road.
This is a time of great change in the United Kingdom, Europe and the world. The best position we could be in right now is within the EU. Reforms are needed, but we can be part of making the union work better, but not if Cameron continues to alienate himself from the rest of the EU with unreasonable and impossible demands.