A one-way ticket, not a return: David Cameron takes a huge gamble on EU referendum

David Cameron received a hero’s welcome as he arrived at the House of Commons for Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday. Just hours after delivering one of the most important speeches of his premiership, Mr Cameron was cheered and applauded by Conservative MPs in appreciation of his tough new stance on the European Union.

Earlier that morning, the British Prime Minister warned that a new global race of nations was underway and he wanted to speak “with urgency and frankness” about how he believed the EU must change to deliver prosperity.

During the forty minute speech, he argued that problems in the eurozone were driving “fundamental change” in Europe and the gap between the EU and its citizens had grown, representing a lack of accountability and consent.

He added that there was “a crisis of European competitiveness,” as other nations soared ahead and warned that the biggest danger to the EU came from those who denounced new thinking as “heresy.”

Outlining his vision for the EU in the 21st century, Mr Cameron called for a flexible Union that could “act with the speed and flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc,” where power could flow back to Member States, not just away from them. He also called for a bigger role for national parliaments and provisions to ensure that whatever new arrangements were enacted for the eurozone worked fairly for those inside it and out.

He pledged that the next Conservative manifesto would ask for a mandate for “a fresh settlement” in the next Parliament, and once that was negotiated the British people would be given a referendum with a simple in/out choice.

The Prime Minister said he was in favour of Britain remaining inside the EU, and he wanted the EU to be a success but warned, “If we left the European Union, it would be a one-way ticket, not a return.”

His speech was met with much derision by both the leader of the Opposition and his European counterparts. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband said he was against an in-or-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg described Mr Cameron’s EU goal as “wholly implausible.”

Indeed, the Prime Minister may have appeased his Conservative backbenchers for now but in reality the referendum Mr Cameron wants is very unlikely to happen. First, the Conservative Party would need to win an outright majority at the 2015 general election. They failed to do that at the last general election, despite 13 years of Labour rule. The latest monthly ICM/Guardian poll places Labour five points ahead of the Tories when respondents were asked how they would vote in a general election tomorrow.

Second, if Mr Cameron were re-elected with a majority and approached the EU to seek “a fresh settlement,” why should the institutions and his European counterparts agree to negotiate? Britain is an important and influential member of the club, but so are several other Member States. If the EU agrees to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership, what’s to stop other members seeking their own “fresh settlements.” How would the EU treat those nations if that situation arose? As German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said this week, “cherry picking is not an option.”

A poll by YouGov yesterday revealed that for the first time in the current Parliament, more people would vote for Britain to stay in the EU than to leave it, with 40 per cent saying they would vote to stay in and 34 per cent stating they would vote to leave. Even if the long-promised referendum did finally come, Britain’s exit from the Union is far from certain despite the rhetoric from eurosceptic MPs and UKIP.

For now, Mr Cameron’s speech has given enormous media coverage to a subject that many Britons find too boring, too dry and too complicated but with pledges like those made yesterday and an election looming in 2015, it is unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.

As the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, put it, “If Britain wants to leave Europe we will roll out the red carpet for you.”

Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

Would Brits say “oui” to staying in the EU?

The UK is “fading into the European background”, warned former European Trade Commissioner and Labour peer Lord Mandelson in July. In an interview with Euractiv, he argued that the UK government was trapped between eurosceptics and anti-Europeans and was in danger of being forgotten by other EU member states.

It’s not just Lord Mandelson that’s worried – former Prime Minister Tony Blair has also voiced concern that Britain could leave the EU. In an interview with Germany’s Die Ziet newspaper, Mr Blair said the UK’s exit from the Union could be sparked by too much power being transferred to Brussels.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently revealed that Britain now exports more goods to countries outside the EU than to the countries inside it, as businesses increasingly look to the rapidly-growing economies of Asia and Latin America. The news is likely to bolster British eurosceptics who argue that leaving the EU won’t damage international trade.

So as Europe’s economic woes rumble on, is a referendum on Britain’s EU membership becoming a reality?

Despite the frequent media hysteria about a possible referendum, the Coalition Agreement makes no reference or commitment to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

What the Agreement does say is that the government supports further EU enlargement and “is a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners.” Which of course, all sounds very…positive.

Continuing, the Agreement affirms that “no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum…this approach strikes the right balance between constructive engagement with the EU to deal with the issues that affect us all, and protecting our national sovereignty.” A firmer tone perhaps, but still no references to a referendum on membership.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph in July, Prime Minister David Cameron said he was prepared to consider a referendum on the UK’s EU relationship, but only when “the time is right.”

Mr Cameron, who told the newspaper that leaving the EU is not in Britain’s best interests, has the rather challenging task of pleasing hardliners on the Conservative Right who want to leave the Union whilst simultaneously appeasing the party’s Coalition partners, the pro-European Liberal Democrats.

MPs will return to Westminster tomorrow after the long summer recess, and the Prime Minister is likely to hit the ground running by announcing his autumn reshuffle, perhaps as early as next week. Speculation over the reshuffle has swirled around for months, but Conservative Europe Minister David Lidington has been rumoured to lose his job.

Sources have claimed that David Cameron has come under pressure from Right-wingers in the party who want to see the Minister replaced with an MP who would take a harder line on Europe. Mr Lidington recently told France’s Le Monde that the UK was a “convinced European”, whose best interests were to stay inside the EU and there was “no question” of an exit any time soon.

For now, it remains unlikely that there will be a referendum, especially while the Conservatives govern in coalition with the Lib Dems. It’s possible that the tone of Britain’s relationship with the EU could change, for example if the “referendum lock” does have to be used then this could trigger a crisis if and when a new treaty is needed. Mr Cameron already prompted a frosty response from his European counterparts when he vetoed the new fiscal treaty last December.

However, in some ways nothing will change and the same old familiar story will continue to play out, with eurosceptic MPs calling for withdrawal from the EU or a “repatriation of powers”. But the reality remains that it really is in the UK’s best interests to stay inside the Union, and for that reason holding a referendum on EU membership is too riskier a gamble for the government to take.

Referendums are expensive and time-consuming – under George Osborne’s Chancellorship the UK economy continues to struggle and GDP shrank 0.5 per cent between April and June this year. If the government decided to spend millions of pounds on what is arguably a vanity project, the decision could spectacularly backfire on an already unpopular administration.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 2 September 2012. 

Brighton Declaration will lead to ‘substantial’ reforms to the European Court of Human Rights

Members of the Council of Europe unanimously voted in favour of reforming the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on Thursday, at a conference in Brighton, UK.

The conference, instigated by the UK chairmanship of the council, involved delegates from the 47 member states who gathered in the south coast city to discuss the reforms laid out in a draft document, known as the Brighton Declaration.

The Council of Europe, an international organisation that promotes democracy, human rights and the rule of law, is based in Strasbourg and was formed in 1949. The UK is a founding member and holds the rotating chairmanship of the council until 23 May 2012, when it will then pass to Albania.

Reform of the court was a key priority for the UK chairmanship, who believe that that court is being asked for do too much and that it takes far too long for cases to be heard. Throughout the chairmanship, Prime Minister David Cameron has pushed an agenda of increased use of ‘subsidiarity’ – national courts dealing with cases where possible, rather than the ECtHR.

The conference came in the midst of the international legal row over the UK government’s failure to deport radical cleric Abu Qatada. The UK government wants to deport Qatada to Jordan to face terror charges, but judges at the ECtHR halted those plans amid concerns that Jordan may use evidence in Qatada’s trial that was obtained via torture.

Following institutional changes to the court in 1998, plus expansion to admit new members, the court experienced a substantial increase in its workload. At present, the ECtHR is has a backlog of around 150,000 cases waiting to be heard, and estimates that around 90 per cent of applications made to it are in fact inadmissible under its rules. The court also believes that in about 10 per cent of the cases that are admissible, up to half are repetitive cases about issues that have already been decided by the court.

At the opening of the Brighton Conference, UK Justice Secretary Ken Clarke said: “This reform is designed not to weaken human rights, or undermine the profoundly important shared valued in the Convention – but to strengthen them, and advance justice, democracy and freedom.”

Under the reforms agreed in Brighton, fewer British cases will go to the ECtHR and more will be resolved in domestic courts.  The measures agreed include:

  • Amending the Convention to tighten the admissibility criteria, and therefore making it easier for trivial cases to be thrown out
  • Amending the Convention to include the principles of subsidiarity and margin of appreciation
  • Improving the selection process for judges
  • Reducing the time limit for claims from six months to four

Critics of the declaration have said they believe the reforms won’t really make any difference to the way the court operates. President of the ECtHR, Sir Nicolas Bratza, told council delegates that the court’s judges were uncomfortable with the idea that governments could in some way dictate to the court how its case law should evolve, or how it should carry out the judicial functions conferred on it.

Although these reforms have now been officially agreed, Ken Clarke admitted that it will still take years to clear the backlog of cases the court is waiting to hear.

In the meantime, council members have reaffirmed their commitment to guaranteeing human rights in Europe and anticipate a future court that will be able to act quicker and more effectively.

This article was published by The New Federalist on 20 April 2012. 

From Eurovision to human rights reform: Brighton welcomes the Council of Europe

Brighton Pavilion, Brighton, UK

Brighton Pavilion, Brighton, UK

As the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe begins to draw to a close, delegates from the Council’s 47 member states are gathering in Brighton to discuss reforms to the European Court of Human Rights. 

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke will open the conference tomorrow, and delegations have just a day to put forward their views and hammer out a deal, which will be known as the Brighton Declaration. Final discussions and the adoption of the new declaration are scheduled for Friday morning.

Fittingly, the conference is being held at the Brighton Centre – the very same 1970s concrete building that has hosted countless political party conferences and a Eurovision song contest.

Throughout its chairmanship, Britain has advocated the principle of “greater subsidiarity” and wants council members to have more freedom to interpret the European Convention on Human Rights according to their own national legal traditions.

In January, David Cameron spoke at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg and said: “The Court has got to be able to fully protect itself against spurious cases when they have been dealt with at the national level.”

The conference also comes as Britain clashes with the European court over the case of radical cleric Abu Qatada, whose deportation from the UK was halted by the court tonight after a last-minute appeal.

It’s clear that Cameron’s Conservatives believe judges in Strasbourg have too much power and would prefer a British court to deal with cases wherever it can, but just how much of this view is shared by other members of the Council of Europe will become apparent over the next few days.

Friendless Britain? Difficult times lie ahead

Last Friday marked another turning point in Britain’s relationship with the EU. After hours of marathon talks at the European Council meeting in Brussels, 26 member states agreed on changes to the treaty of Lisbon that would potentially save the eurozone. Members agreed to stricter budget rules and a stronger fiscal union. All member states that is, except for Britain who effectively vetoed the offer on the table.

By vetoing the proposed treaty change, David Cameron has taken a risky gamble. Cameron argues that the amendment was not ‘in Britain’s national interests’ and that he was safeguarding the City of London (the same City that depends on business from EU member states and therefore should expect some input from those member states when it comes to regulation).

Sources claim that Cameron sought a separate legally binding protocol to protect the City of London from further EU financial regulations, protection for US financial institutions based in London that do not trade with the rest of Europe and an agreement that any future changes would require the unanimous backing of  every EU member state. It can come as no surprise that the other EU member states found these demands for preferential treatment unreasonable and were unwilling to compromise. Had Cameron negotiated harder, longer and smarter he may well have reached a better deal for the City and a compromise that was acceptable for Britain and other EU member states. After all, isn’t a deal that saves the Euro in Britain’s interests too?

By playing his trump card too early Cameron has used his veto but stopped nothing. The planned treaty amendment will steam ahead. As the Centre for European Reform point out, Britain has never been outvoted on a single piece of EU financial legislation. The EU will continue to move forward and Britain has been left behind. David Cameron can at least take some comfort in the fact that the die-hard Eurosceptic fringes of his party will see his performance at the European Council meeting as victorious. Cameron’s decision is bitterly disappointing. For forty or so years, Britain has operated a successful foreign policy that has allowed it to build good relationships with its European neighbours. A critical element of that foreign policy was that Britain was there, sat at the table when EU bodies made decisions. Now Britain’s position has been weakened with less influence amongst those neighbours and it is viewed as an outsider, a difficult and reluctant partner.

Britain has not left the EU and nor is it likely to do so. It remains part of the single market, albeit from a marginalised and isolated position. Less than two months have passed since MPs voted overwhelmingly not to hold a referendum on EU membership but the future of UK-EU relations looks grim, particularly while David Cameron is Prime Minister.

Why the UK needs to stay in the EU

PM David Cameron and President José Manuel Barroso

This week, the members of the Backbench Business Committee in the House of Commons agreed to hold a debate and vote on calls for a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. The vote, which takes place tomorrow, is extremely ill-timed given the severity of the Eurozone crisis. Today EU leaders, including David Cameron of course, are holding emergency talks in Brussels on the financial crisis and measures that will keep another recession at bay. The UK has always had an awkward, difficult relationship with the EU but leaving the Union would be madness.

Without EU membership, the UK would become isolated from its neighbours. The EU is a global actor with 500 million citizens and by withdrawing its membership, the UK would no longer be part of the strong voice that Europe has on the world’s stage.

An exit from the EU would result in the immediate loss of the benefits the UK has from being part of the European Single Market. Free movement of good, capital, services and people would be gone overnight. Eurosceptics have advocated a ‘trade-only’ relationship with the EU, but realistically why should member states have to resign themselves to dealing with the UK on uncompromising terms that most likely will favour the UK? Being part of EFTA (the European Free Trade Area that includes Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Lichtenstein) is hardly the same as having full EU membership. Iceland itself is in the midst of accession negotiations and is expected to join the EU by 2014. Furthermore, the EU is at the dawn of a whole new generation of free trade agreements with other parts of the world – most recently with South Korea, a country with enormous economic potential. If the UK leaves the EU, it cannot participate in these new free trade agreements. Negotiating its own agreements with partners would take years.

The biggest dilemma facing the EU now is the Eurozone crisis. If a resolution can’t be found then the consequences of a new recession or a failed single currency would be catastrophic. The UK may not be a member of the Eurozone but as an EU member it has a responsibility to help find a solution to the crisis. The problems are simply too grown-up, too serious and too complex to be overshadowed by Conservative party backbenchers yelling for a ‘return of our powers from Brussels’ or ‘renegotiated terms.’ The rules are there to ensure members are on a level playing field with each other. Why should the UK receive preferential treatment?

European integration has helped to bring peace to Europe for the past fifty or so years. Historically, Europe is one of the most belligerent places on Earth and Europeans have fought each other for thousands of years. Countries that have positive relations with each other, close diplomatic ties and that depend on each other for trade, investment and other resources are simply less likely to go to war with each other.

Earlier this year, Parliament passed the European Union Act which ensures that no further powers will be transferred to Brussels without the approval of a nationwide referendum. Consequently, the whole debate on the UK’s EU membership and the justifications for renegotiating membership terms or withdrawing all together have never seemed more irrelevant.

The UK belongs in the EU. It has a shared history, culture and identity with the other EU member states. By leaving the club that it waited so patiently to join in 1973, the UK would undoubtedly be worse off. Times are tough and the EU is currently sailing through a terrifying storm, but now is not the time to abandon ship.