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.”