Cameron's EU speech may not be the failure everyone predicts

Jan 22, 2013
Richard Ehrman

Cameron's basic argument – that we need looser ties with Brussels and a referendum – is surely right

AFTER weeks of briefing and counter briefing, delays and postponements, sometimes bordering on the farcical, we are finally due to hear David Cameron's big speech on the EU, to be given on Wednesday morning. 

Ever since he warned his party, back in opposition, against the dangers of "banging on about Europe", it is a subject he has been trying to avoid. Given the level of criticism he has received from both sides of the argument before they have even heard what he has to say, it is not hard to see why.

His expected formula of renegotiation followed by a referendum after the next election is unlikely to satisfy his restive party for long, and nor will it garner much support in Europe. But while most commentators have chosen to dwell on the weaknesses in the Prime Minister's position - and there are plenty of them - his basic argument is surely right.

Nobody seriously doubts that the increasing integration of the eurozone means that, sooner or later, there is going to have to be a new settlement between those EU members who are part of the single currency and those, like us, who are not. Seen in this light, his plan for looser ties with Brussels is broadly in tune with popular opinion.

So, too, is a referendum. Nearly 40 years after Harold Wilson gave the British people a vote on membership of the EU, most of us would like the chance to have another say on a subject that touches so closely on so many aspects of our national life, yet which successive governments have found so hard to get a handle on.

Thanks to the little known Referendum Act, passed by the coalition in 2011, Cameron has already ensured that we cannot be bounced into any future EU treaty by the government of the day without a popular vote, as happened with both Maastricht and Lisbon.

Offering a referendum at some unspecified future date on our wider role in the EU is not as concrete as that. But at least for the first time it will be official policy. That alone will make it very hard for the other parties to ignore, however hard they wriggle.

But then the PM's big problem with this speech has never been what he is going to say. Rather it is that he will be saying it from a position of obvious political weakness. You do not have to be a Westminster anorak to know that the only reason he is making it now is because his party has forced him to.

It does not help, either, that he is not proposing actually to do anything about the EU until after the election, which at the moment he looks unlikely to win. Inevitably the impression, not least among his own supporters, is that he is trying to kick the subject into touch until after 2015, when it will be somebody else's problem.

Tory discontent over Europe never went away, but if Cameron had made this speech 15 months ago he might have had a chance of nipping it in the bud. Now, whatever he says will be too little, too late for many of his MPs, and they will not be shy of saying so.

Nor can Cameron expect much sympathy from across the Channel. For most of his fellow European leaders, any notion of an EU a la carte is fraught with danger. Intent as they are on preserving the eurozone, they may well take the view that if Britain wants to renegotiate we should leave first, and then try our luck from the outside. Because the PM has already said he would never support Britain quitting the EU, it is a line he will find particularly difficult to answer.

Despite all the pitfalls he faces, however, it would be a mistake to write of Wednesday's speech as just another piece of stop-gap party management. For far too long, the EU debate in this country has been stuck in the same sterile groove. The pro-Europeans play down the political implications of more integration, sometimes even to the extent of trying to conceal them. The eurosceptics insist that we can go back to the Common Market we joined in 1972, even when the rest of Europe says such an option is no longer on offer.

It may take time, but if Cameron can at least shake the argument up, tomorrow's big speech may not turn out to be the failure everybody seems to expect.

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I beieve the vote 40 years ago was about joining the common market or EEC, which was a totaly different animal to the euroshambles we are currently mired in.