The call for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU has always been a transitional demand. It isn’t what anyone actually wants, it is just a more inclusive way of demanding withdrawal. While withdrawal itself is clearly lunacy, “how can you refuse to let the British people decide” has a ring of truth to it. Of course a further referendum would be needed if a Government was proposing that we withdraw – and indeed there will need to be a referendum if there is a new treaty which hands further powers to Brussels.
But David Cameron’s promise of a referendum during the next Parliament was never anything more than a tactic to relieve the pressure from his backbenchers and from UKIP. He wanted a plausible explanation of why we cannot have a referendum right now and “because we need time to negotiate changes” is the best he could come up with. It is the classic case of “Jam tomorrow”: it allows the Conservatives to appeal at the next General Election to both Eurosecptics and Europhiles rather than making a clear decision.
As is made clear in today’s Guardian, not only does the demand to re-open negotiations on the Lisbon Treaty ignore the real issues being considered elsewhere in the EU, David Cameron hasn’t actually told anyone what it is that he wants to renegotiate:
There is also exasperation in EU capitals that Cameron has declined, as yet, to flesh out what kind of changes he wants or which policy areas he hopes to renegotiate. The puzzlement extends to British officials and business. A delegation from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) was in Brussels on Monday and sounded out the European Commission about what Downing Street wanted because they have not been told. Similar puzzlement surrounds the battery of EU police, justice, and security measures that Britain needs to renegotiate, a policy recently severely criticised by a House of Lords inquiry as damaging the British national interest.
Under the Lisbon treaty Britain has to opt out of more than 130 EU police and justice instruments en bloc and then re-negotiate the bits it wants to retain with other EU governments and with the European Commission.
Senior commission sources say the home secretary, Theresa May, has not contacted Cecilia Malmstrom, one of the commissioners responsible, since last year.
Although the promise of a referendum by 2017 was seen as helpful in uniting the Conservative Party, it is deeply unhelpful to securing economic recovery. It creates uncertainty at a time when we need stability. It will act as a break on investment as companies decide it might be better to wait until the outcome is clear – knowing that Britain may become a bad place in which to site a manufacturing facility for selling to the European market. It is yet another example of the Prime Minister putting party before country.
The real choice for the British people is between a Government focused on achieving jobs and growth, which will use its influence in the EU to push for a Europe-wide focus on jobs and growth or a Government which wishes to leave the EU and retreat into a protectionist backwater. Labour will be offering the former and UKIP will be offering the latter. David Cameron knows that leaving the EU is not in Britain’s interest. As he said in his January speech:
I believe something very deeply. That Britain’s national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it.
If David Cameron has a different alternative he wants to offer, he needs to write down what he is proposing and put those proposals to the British people at the General Election. If he doesn’t know what he wants, perhaps a spell in opposition might give him an opportunity to work it out.