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.