There is now a lot riding on David Cameron’s much trailed “big speech” on the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU. It has been talked about since last summer. Number 10 would certainly not have wanted to have so much advance speculation about what it might say and, as expectation in the speech grows, they have been minded to delay the day, presumably fearful that they might disappoint. So, instead, speculation has become like a growing monster.
The first thing David Cameron needs to do is to untangle what negotiations can take place right now and in this parliament from those which must be postponed for another day and until after the next election. There are two major areas where the current coalition government (Lib Dems and all) will necessarily end up in a renegotiation with the EU. Firstly, the brinkmanship over delivering a real terms freeze to the EU budget which has been led by Britain is likely to continue well into the New Year. David Cameron must stand firm on this. We should not be making cuts in Britain only to give inflation busting budget increases to inept officials in the EU.
Secondly, the British government has already made clear that it will exercise a right it has under the Lisbon Treaty to opt back out of 130 EU directives that Gordon Brown signed up to relating to justice and home affairs but will then seek to pick and choose those it wants to cooperate with and those which will be vetoed for good. There is nervousness among some Liberal Democrats about some of these renegotiations but the Prime Minister must stand his ground and exercise the treaty right that Britain has to sort out the mess in some of these laws.
Then there is the longer term picture. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are, emotionally, poles apart when it comes to views about the EU and it is no good ignoring that central coalition dynamic. Many Conservatives, myself included, want to see a more fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU with powers returned in many areas while we remain an enthusiastic and committed member of the single market. But, because of the dynamics of the coalition, this more fundamental renegotiation must be postponed. Ironically, the intervention of UKIP at the last General Election might have denied the country a Conservative majority thus undermining the cause they claim to believe in.
So David Cameron must start to set out what would be in the next Conservative manifesto. It is no longer enough to use slogans like “in Europe, not run by Europe.” We need to flesh out in more detail what a future renegotiation would look like and seek a mandate for that position at the next election. This could include taking powers back in areas such as social and employment policy, a looser relationship with the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy and the return of responsibility for regional policy which could mean we have more to spend on regeneration in Cornwall. Such a new deal could also involve clipping the wings of wayward EU institutions like the European Court of Justice which currently has too much power and needs taking down a peg or two.
Some say such a fundamental renegotiation is impossible but they are wrong. There are growing calls within Germany and the EU Commission for a new Treaty in Europe which would totally re-order the European Union and accelerate political union among some members. No longer would this be something done by stealth, but political integration would become an overt aim in order to try to save the euro. But countries like Germany fully understand that it is impossible for Britain and possibly many others to follow, so there would be a fork in the road and Britain would need to be given new powers back in return for agreeing to such a new order. If Angela Merkel is re-elected at the end of next year, this agenda will rise rapidly during 2014 and Britain must get into in the driver’s seat now.
Any discussion about the EU always ends up slipping into the rut of whether or not we need a referendum. My own view is that this is a distraction which undermines the central aim of renegotiation but, at the end of the process, there is a case for having such a referendum on the outcome to draw a line under things and move on.