By Josh Hitchens
Last week saw yet another victory for those pesky backbench Tories determined to get a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. James Wharton’s private members bill is intended to force whatever party is in power after 2015 to have a referendum by the end of 2017. It’s not going to have its first reading until the 19th of June so we’re in store for another month of tea room intrigue before we know the outcome of this latest plot.
This time the Conservative whips are backing the bill, the Lib Dems and Labour however, are not. This is good news for Cameron as it gives him an opportunity to distinguish his party from the other two and get across his message that for devoted Eurosceptics, the Tories should be the party of choice. But, it is bad news for the likes of John Baron who actually want the bill passed.
Unfortunately for Mr Baron, the bill will almost certainly be defeated. Even if it somehow does get passed the likelihood of it having any tangible impact on government policy is close to zero. If the Conservatives get elected in 2015 it would be politically suicidal for them not to hold a referendum in 2017 in any case. On the other hand if Labour gets in they would in all likelihood simply repeal the law. Either way it is hard to see the bill as anything other than inconsequential, which begs the question why are the Tory’s devoting so much time to it?
One explanation is that Tory backbenchers are worried about losing their seats in 2015. They want to affirm their Eurosceptic credentials in order to see off a potential UKIP surge. Proposing this bill is a clever strategy. Having a bill guaranteeing a referendum defeated by Labour and the Lib Dems will undoubtedly prove more politically advantageous to the Conservatives than having passed the bill with Labour and Lib Dem support.
But the main root of the Tories obsession over Europe is old fashioned patriotism. The fact that two thirds of British laws come from Europe irks them. They see it as undemocratic and lacking a proper mandate from the British people. So, in light of this spirit of Euroscepticism, it’s worth looking at the merits of the prime minister’s plan for renegotiation and what life would actually be like outside the EU. Firstly, it’s worth noting that there is widespread scepticism over whether any renegotiation would be successful. There seems to be a consensus that only minor concessions would be offered.
This makes the prime minister’s plan risky and potentially short sighted. It may win him some votes at the 2015 election. But should the prime minister win the election and subsequently fail to gain any substantial concessions from the EU, he will permanently lose credibility. More importantly, it would make an exit from the EU more likely.
This is where the danger in Mr Cameron’s strategy lies. If the public did vote for an exit Britain would not be able to trade with other country without having to pay trade tariffs. This would put British exporters at a considerable disadvantage compared to their European competitors and import duties would push up living costs.
International companies would feel the temptation to move to the twenty miles across the channel to Europe or to America , which from 2014 will enjoy cross Atlantic free trade. London’s position as a global financial hub would face decline. As a result free trade agreements with Britain will start to become increasingly unattractive to other nations and Britain would be sent into a spiral of decline.
However, Cameron’s problem is not in promising a referendum. This is above all a democratic imperative. There is also a real debate to be had over whether Europe is the market to be aligned with at a time when many European states are on the edge of bankruptcy. No, Cameron’s problem is making no attempt to develop a transition plan towards life outside the EU.
At present if Britain leaves it will be stepping off the Cliff of Europe without anything to cushion its fall. It takes years to negotiate free trade agreements and that process should be taking place now. The British government would need to be negotiating agreements that would take effect upon Britain’s exit from the European Union. This could take the form of free trade agreements with India, the USA and old allies like New Zealand and Australia.
This would give Britain a real choice in the event of a referendum and ensure Britain’s future. What’s more a strong Britain with free trade agreements with G20 countries would stand a good chance of negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU in the same way the USA has, no fee, no red tape just the economic benefits.
Britain can have a strong, prosperous future but the current debate offers the stagnant status quo or potential disaster, the government must be more creative and pro-active in offering a better choice.