Monday, 9 July 2012

A referendum is on the way

Last week David Cameron sparked a run of speculation about whether and when there might be a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU. Critics said that he didn’t actually give a firm commitment to hold one, gave no date and didn’t even suggest what the question might be. Therefore, their theory goes, his comments amounted to very little, right? Wrong.

David Cameron was intentionally moving the position of the Conservative Party. Having worked as his Press Secretary, I know there are times when stories appear in the papers because journalists, collectively, get a bit carried away but there are also times when stories appear because although, on the face of it, nothing very new has been said, the background briefing given to journalists by a spokesman means they understand something significant is happening. Last week’s announcement definitely fell into the latter category.

So why didn’t he just name the date and set the question? There is huge uncertainty about where current events in the EU will end. A partial break up the eurozone is still highly likely. Against that backdrop, it is events that will drive the timetable and events which will determine the final shape of any renegotiation. It would be foolish for any government to be too prescriptive about things at this stage. But they should be preparing the ground for change and last week, David Cameron confirmed that he was. For the first time, he explicitly said that the “status quo” of Britain’s relationship with the EU was no longer acceptable. That is a significant change.

The majority of people in Britain don’t want to leave the EU altogether but they do want a new relationship with many powers returned. At times of crisis, the future belongs to those with both a plan and the political will to drive that plan through. If the eurozone countries do decide to integrate politically and fiscally in order to save the single currency then our membership of the EU will have to be renegotiated because some of the measures we are already signed up to could start to act against our national interest. Alternatively, if the euro collapses or a number of countries leave it, we will be in a totally different situation anyway. Either way, change is on the cards.

Some say that you can’t renegotiate our membership of the EU but no one has really tried yet. I don’t think we should be defeatist about this issue because where there is a will, there is a way. The EU has accumulated too much power and the more competences it takes on, the less competent it becomes. It is time to clip its wings and take powers away from Brussels. Rather than the dogma of “ever closer union” we need to see powers passing back in the opposite direction to national governments.

There are already different tiers in the EU. There are currently 27 member states but only 17 of those are members of the euro. There are countries in the EU but not members of the Schengen agreement on border controls. There are some EU members who are neutral and have never worked with the EU on defence matters. The challenge now is to expand the “pick and mix” principle so that more policies in the EU become optional. We should aim to remain part of the single market which is what we signed up to in the first place but take powers back in many other areas.

It is sometimes argued that now is not the time to talk about re-negotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU because the euro is so feeble that it is not capable of withstanding democratic process or discussion about the EU’s future. But now is not the time to put our heads in the sand and ignore the failure of the euro. So, let’s negotiate.