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.”

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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. 

ACTA ratification suspended as EU refers treaty to the ECJ

European flag outside the Commission

European Commission, Brussels

The EU has suspended ratification of ACTA and referred the treaty to the EU’s highest court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

The European Commission is to ask the ECJ if the treaty is compatible with the EU’s fundamental rights and freedoms – something that protesters and politicians have voiced concerns and misgivings over for months. It is hoped that an ECJ ruling will clear any fog or misinterpretation in the wording of the treaty.

In a press release on Tuesday, Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht said that he shared people’s concerns over freedom of the internet and that he understood the present uncertainty on what ACTA will ultimately mean for the key issues (including internet freedom and the protection of Europe’s Intellectual Property).

The Commissioner also stressed that ACTA will not “change anything in the European Union, but will matter for the European Union.”

Whether or not that is true is now up to the ECJ to decide, but this latest development has certainly awarded a point to the anti-ACTA campaign.

ACTA and the EU: Dangerous bedfellows?

Anti-ACTA Protest, Berlin

Anti-ACTA Protest, Berlin

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Europe and beyond last weekend to protest against the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA).  Citizens in several cities including Vilnius, London, Sofia, Valetta and Tallinn rallied together and participated in an international day of action against the treaty.

Just a fortnight earlier, French MEP Kader Arif resigned his post as European Parliament rapporteur for ACTA, claiming that the treaty “goes too far” by restricting internet freedom and is a “masquerade.” M. Arif added that he believes that in its current form the treaty is ineffective and dangerous for civil liberties. So what is ACTA all about and should we be concerned?

ACTA is an international treaty designed to protect intellectual property rights (IPR) by standardising copyright protection measures. It was signed by Australia, Canada, Japan, Morocco, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the United States in October 2011 and then by the EU in January 2012. The treaty won’t come into effect in the EU before it is ratified by all 27 member states and the European Parliament. So far, 22 member states are signatories.

ACTA’s chief aim is to curb the trade of counterfeited goods, including copyrighted material online. The penalty for individuals found guilty of breaching the terms of the agreement could be either a prison sentence or a fine. The maximum penalty isn’t specified in the treaty but will be “sufficiently high to provide a deterrent to future acts of infringement, consistently with the level of penalties applied for crimes of a corresponding gravity.”

The European Commission claims that ACTA will not target individuals and is necessary in order to effectively tackle large-scale IPR violations. It also claims that the treaty will not change EU law or restrict the use of the internet.

However, the treaty’s strongest critics argue that the ACTA’s wording is deliberately ambiguous, can be widely interpreted and will ultimately change the role of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who will effectively be responsible if their customers are pirating data. There are also fears that the treaty could result in a policed, censored internet where freedom of expression is restricted.

The European Parliament won’t debate ACTA until June, but the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Czech Republic have already announced they won’t ratify the treaty just yet. European Parliament President Martin Schulz also lent his voice to the anti-ACTA campaign this week when he stated on German TV that the balance between copyright protection and the rights of individual internet users “is only very inadequately anchored in this agreement.”

With an increasing number of angry street protests, strikes and now politicians wading in to the anti-ACTA row, the treaty tentatively appears to be unravelling in Europe. The June debate remains a few months away, but there is still plenty of time for civil society to continue to mobilise, lobby and campaign against what appears to be a potentially draconian piece of legislation which in its worst form could undermine the very principles of free speech and privacy that are so inherent to European culture.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 18 February 2012.

High hopes for the first European Citizens’ Initiative

Less than ten weeks remain before EU citizens will be able to register the very first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). From 1 April, citizens will be able to call on the European Commission  to propose legislation on any issue where it has the competence to legislate. That could be virtually anything from culture, education and the environment to consumer protection, equality or transport. Great! Fantastic! At last, an opportunity for ordinary people to gain access to the College of Commissioners and truly influence policy making and the legislative process in Europe. Well it is, but the procedures for proposing an initiative are neither quick, nor simple.

The ECI was born out the Lisbon Treaty and is part of a drive by the EU to improve transparency and democracy. Essentially, if an initiative receives one million signatures from citizens who come from at least seven of the EU’s member states then the European Commission will consider the proposal.

So how does it work? Well, before an ECI can be launched at least seven citizens from seven EU member states must form a “citizens’ committee” and officially register the ECI online. Then the committee can begin to collect signatures, and organisers have a year to do so. Any EU citizen can sign an initiative (so long as they are old enough to vote in European Parliament elections) and must complete a specific statement of support, either online or on paper. Once one million signatures have been collected, representatives from the Commission will meet with organisers and discuss the initiative in detail. There is also an opportunity for a public hearing at the European Parliament. The Commission will then adopt a formal response to the ECI’s proposals and set out its next course of action, if any.

This is a long process. Initially, the Commission has two months to register the proposed initiative. If you want to be able to collect electronic signatures for your ECI (and who wouldn’t in this digital age), then it takes a further month to build an online collection system that can handle the appropriate technical and security demands. This also has to be certified by a national authority in the member state where the data is going to be stored, before any signatures can be collected. Organisers have a year to collect signatures, and then a further three months are allowed for national authorities to verify the statements of support.Once organisers have received certificates verifying the signatures they submit these to the European Commission, who have a further three months to examine the initiative and prepare a response. Potentially, that’s 21 months of work from start to end, not to mention the work that goes in before an initiative is first launched.

Critics argue that the process is too complex, too long-winded and that ultimately, the European Commission is not legally bound to propose legislation as a result of an initiative. There are also fears that the ECI could be hijacked by civil society organisations pushing their own agendas. The Commission has tried to prepare for this by announcing that initiatives can’t be run by organisations. However, organisations are allowed to promote or support an ECI provided that they do so “with full transparency.”

On the plus side, this really is a rather revolutionary step for the EU and it has never consulted its citizens like this before. Last year the UK government introduced e-petitions, a similar measure for citizens to influence policy by way of a petition (only 100,000 signatures are needed for a subject to be raised in the House of Commons) and the website has been hugely popular. If the ECI receives the publicity it deserves on 1 April, it should get people talking and, hopefully, mobilised. One million signatures is a huge number to collect but in the digital age this might not be quite such a mammoth task. Time will tell and the first ECI is just around the corner.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 8 February 2012. 

Socialist Schulz is elected President of the European Parliament

German Socialist MEP Martin Schulz was elected President of the European Parliament in Strasbourg this week. His election comes at a particularly poignant time for socialism in Europe – both the heads of the European Commission and European Council belong to conservative political parties who are affiliated with the European People’s Party and there are just four left wing governments amongst the EU’s member states.

Schulz, who was nominated by MEPs from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) back in September 2011, has been the group’s president since 2004. He succeeds Jerzy Buzek, who became the first Polish President of the European Parliament in 2009. The new president, who has a comfortable majority of 387 out of the 670 votes cast, is now responsible for presiding over parliamentary debates, chairing plenary sessions and representing the parliament internationally. He will hold the post until the next European elections in July 2014.

British MEPs Nirj Deva (Conservative) and Diana Wallis (Liberal Democrat) also stood against Schulz, gaining 142 and 141 votes respectively. Since her defeat on Tuesday, Diana Wallis has announced that she is to resign after representing Yorkshire and the Humber for the past twelve years. When an MEP steps down, their seat is handed to the candidate who came second on the party list behind them. Diana Wallis’s constituents can now look forward to being represented by her husband, Stewart Arnold.

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.