Michael St George argues Cameron’s EU Referendum Pledge – Not What It Seems
IT HAS become something of a cliché, but no less true for that, to say that David Cameron’s No 10 operation resembles nothing so much as government-by-Oxford-essay-crisis: or, less charitably (but no less accurately), that Cameron vacillates about making a definitive commitment on major issues to such an extent that, if his rear end is held to the fire, he can be pushed into almost any action, even action he didn’t want to have to take, just to escape being burned.
Evidence of this is all over his EU referendum pledge. From the time of his election as Conservative party leader in 2005, it was obvious that Cameron’s strategy was to try and park the EU issue in the not-for-discussion zone: he expressly eschewed any tendency to, as he described, “bang on about Europe”. As an only very thinly disguised, if disguised at all, adherent to the euroscepticism-averse, UK-destiny-in-EU school of politics, he was, until recently, adamant that talk of an In-Out EU referendum was unhelpful: in October 2011 he even whipped his MPs against a mere non-binding motion for an In/Out referendum. Yet he’s now given a referendum commitment that no other Prime Minister has given for nearly 40 years.
Fear of Labour stealing a march
Clearly, he didn’t want to do it. Yet he’s been forced to by a combination of the electoral advance of UKIP, mostly from his own disaffected supporters: the prospect of the EU itself moving to the kind of full fiscal, economic and political union which any PM would find hard to justify to the British people: and the fear of Labour stealing a march by announcing its own referendum commitment. But as equally characteristic of Cameron, the announcement betrays a degree of legerdemain, the deconstruction of which risks the effectiveness of his tactic unravelling as its sleight of hand becomes transparent.
There are at least two carefully-constructed get-outs
Cameron’s speech was very qualified. Essentially it amounted to no more than this: if I’m re-elected in 2015 with a majority, and if I can renegotiate what I consider suitable amendments to the UK’s terms of membership, then I would arrange an In/Out referendum on the outcome – on which I would campaign for an In vote. There are at least two carefully-constructed get-outs there – Cameron is rather like the captain of a vessel preparing to set out on a major ocean crossing, but calling in at two intermediate ports first where the captain knows he can jump ship.
Firstly, there’s the little matter of getting re-elected, with a majority, in 2015 – because, whatever pledges he might give about “any government I lead”, few can really believe, surely, that risking an exit from the EU would survive coalition negotiations once again with the EU-phile Liberal Democrats? Not that re-election is a foregone conclusion by any means: the Tories are behind in the polls, making scant progress on several fronts with rectifying the economy, and about to feel the heat of electoral disapproval even more as spending cuts, which should have been front-loaded in 2010-11 but weren’t, start to bite. Add in the continuing drift of Coalition-dismayed left-inclined Lib Dems to Labour, and the latter don’t look noticeably likely not to benefit.
Then there’s the assumption that a referendum commitment, such as it is, will attract back into the fold the disaffected deserters to UKIP. Crowing Tories are taking this as a given – many more thoughtful observers, however, are not so sure. UKIP’s support comes not merely from its EU stance, but also from its policies of, inter alia, reducing public spending, re-introducing grammar school education as the most effective engine of social mobility, and modifying the slavish obeisance to Green energy and environment shibboleths. On all those policy areas, there’s barely any discernible difference between the main Westminster parties, so the appeal of an economically more radical alternative shouldn’t be discounted. There will, after all, be any number of reasons for dissatisfaction with the Cameroon Conservatives in 2015 apart from the EU question.
Naked distrust of Cameron’s political integrity
Moreover, there exists on the right of UK politics at least a suspicion, at most a naked distrust, of Cameron’s political integrity. There may have been all sorts of nuanced justifications advanced for Cameron’s resiling from his “cast-iron” guarantee, but anyone only superficially interested in politics – and let’s face it, that’s the vast majority of the population – will only remember a vague sense of Cameron’s “broken promise”. For all these reasons, Cameron’s re-election come 2015 seems less, rather than more, likely – so the first get-out is in place.
Secondly, his commitment depends on a renegotiation succeeding in delivering a meaningful repatriation of EU competences or at least a substantial UK-applicable derogation of EU powers. Both he and his newly cock-a-hoop supporters, though, are deluded if they think the EU will willingly accommodate any such thing – anyone with the slightest knowledge of the EU’s history and founding rationale must realise that the EU would view that as possibly presaging the collapse of the entire supranational project, which the rationale could not afford to risk.
An alternative vision is anathema
The most cursory examination of the EU’s founding constitutional documents and the major treaties shows clearly that the principle of acquis communautaire requires that member-state sovereign powers, once ceded to the EU, can never be given back – to do so negates the very raison d’être of the EU itself, which is to construct a specifically supranational entity towards supplanting the nation-state which EU philosophy considers both outmoded and even dangerous.
To suggest that the EU would willingly reform itself into the kind of outward-looking, freer-market, predominantly trading co-operative that Cameron dangled before his Bloomberg audience as a realistic post-renegotiation prospect is risible. To stress once again: the EU was constructed specifically to be a closed, protectionist customs union and a vehicle for social-democratic employment and societal protections in the name of “solidarity”, whatever the economic downsides. Receptiveness to an alternative vision is anathema to it.
ALDE’s Guy Verhofstadt, despite being an especially egregious example of inveterate EU-federasty, couldn’t have been clearer about as how fatuous the EU would label Cameron’s idea that a meaningful renegotiation would be accommodated: Germany’s Guido Westerwelle was no less explicit in saying that the direction of any future changes in the EU will be towards more centralisation, not less: “We need more, not less, EU integration, more decided in Brussels, not countries cherry-picking” he stated. Cameron will get meaningless, cosmetic, crumbs at most. Would he really risk the humiliation of an In-Out referendum on such thin fare?
Cameron’s strategy also depends on the EU’s own evolvement into a fully-fledged fiscal, economic and political union by his deadline of 2017/18. Yet anyone with only the most passing knowledge of the EU knows that constitutional development in the Union proceeds at a snail’s pace: the crisis of the euro itself has been going since 2008, and it’s hardly anywhere a resolution of that after 5 years. Is it in any way realistic to bank on the shape of a future EU to be ready for negotiation about the UK’s relationship with it in 4 years’ time? If the EU vacillates as per usual, his much-vaunted renegotiation cannot even commence. This is the strategy’s second get-out clause.
So – to summarise: Cameron surely knows he’s by no means even remotely assured of being in a position electorally to commence any kind of EU renegotiation in 2015. He surely knows, too, that equally remote is the likelihood that the EU will itself be in a position to renegotiate the position of one member-state, even on the entirely fictitious supposition that it might be inclined to entertain such a prospect anyway, as a risk to its own existence. So his commitment, entirely dependent on factors outside his control, takes on a very different hue.
It becomes a party management exercise to try and get him over the hazardous 2015 election hurdle and little more: a purely assumed-to-be-clever political stratagem to prevent accelerating defections or even a party split. Cameron’s commitment was not the construction of a Prime Minister resolved to give the UK public their long-denied democratic voice, but that of a pressured Prime Minister who thinks he has been, party-management tactics-wise, really rather clever. Because his committment will never have to be honoured – and he knows it.