So the Prime Minister has finally agreed to a public vote on EU membership, or has he? Media coverage of David Cameron’s longsuffering Europe speech, finally delivered at Bloomberg HQ on 23 January, has focused on the Conservative leader’s commitment to hold a referendum by 2017. As is so often the case with political pledges of this sort, however, the devil is in the detail. At the present moment, there are at least three reasons why this referendum might not go ahead as planned. This blog post sets out these reasons before arguing that the Prime Minister nonetheless needs to change his rhetoric on the EU if he holds out any hope of turning around public opinion in the UK.
The Conservatives might not win the next general election (and Labour and the Lib Dems might hold their nerve).
The coalition agreement signed in May 2010 between the Conservatives and Lib Dems made no mention of an in/out referendum on EU membership and the two parties have not reopened this issue thus far. For this reason, the Bloomberg speech can be seen as a trailer for a future Conservative government rather than a jump cut for the coalition, with Cameron announcing that his party would, if it wins the next election, seek a ‘new settlement’ with the EU before asking the people if they wish to remain members under these new terms. Although some commentators have downplayed the significance of this commitment it goes well beyond the current requirement to put certain categories of EU treaty change to a referendum before they can become law in the UK. This requirement, which is set out in the European Union Act (2011), refers only to a referendum on proposed treaty changes and not on the wider question of whether the UK should remain in the EU.
With the Conservatives trailing in the opinion polls (even after their post-Bloomberg bounce) the opportunity to deliver this manifesto pledge might not materialise. A key question, therefore, is whether the two other main political parties will be forced to match Cameron’s commitment to an in/out vote. Ed Miliband’s initial response to the Bloomberg speech was to reject calls for such a referendum for now, but the Labour leader is already under pressure from the ‘euro realist’ wing of his party to recant. Nick Clegg also came out fighting against the Bloomberg speech, although his criticisms of Cameron rested uneasily with the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledge in 2010 to hold an in/out referendum in the event of a ‘fundamental change’ in the UK’s relationship with the EU.
EU member states might not play ball
The Bloomberg speech is premised on the view that a new EU treaty is inevitable either to determine the fate of the euro or ensure a ‘diverse, competitive, democratically accountable Europe’. This is by no means a foregone conclusion. As regards the euro, the consensus last year may have been that further treaty change was inevitable to resolve the on-going sovereign debt crisis but the comparative calm on financial markets in recent months has given pause for thought. A new EU treaty on the political underpinnings of the European project seems less likely still. Here Cameron’s speech glossed over the fact that the UK and other EU member states spent much of the last decade bringing Europe ‘closer to the people’ though a new European Constitution only for the people of France and the Netherlands to reject this project. Although most elements of the European Constitution were later salvaged under the Lisbon Treaty, EU leaders remain rightly wary after this debacle about seeking legitimacy for European integration through poorly understood treaty reforms, especially when referenda are required for ratification.
Should other EU leaders not take forward plans for a new treaty then the fall back position, according to the Bloomberg speech, is that the UK would seek a unilateral change to its terms of membership. Quite how other EU member states would respond to such a request is unclear. Harold Wilson, it is true, secured a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975 but the cosmetic changes negotiated at this time stopped well short of the kind of new settlement that Cameron seems to have in mind. Also problematic are the potential knock-on effects from a UK renegotiation. In the mid-1970s the UK’s domestic difficulties with the European project could be treated by the EEC in isolation. These days there is more than one member state capable of unpicking key elements of the European legal order, with France and the Czech Republic among the potential members of this awkward squad.
That said, if the Conservative Party wins the next general election and makes good on its manifesto commitment, the expectation is that other EU member states would cut a deal with the UK to keep it in the European club. What is unclear at this stage is what such a deal would look like and whether it would carry any weight with UK voters. The wording used in such a referendum would obviously be key. Whereas Harold Wilson sensibly put the UK’s renegotiated accession treaty to one side in 1975 by asking voters ‘Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?’, Cameron is in danger of asking the more nebulous question of ‘Do you want the UK to remain a member of the European Union under the new terms of membership?’ Having committed to draw up legislation for this referendum within the current Parliament Cameron should take a leaf out of Wilson’s book by finding a formulation of words that focuses on the fundamental political issues at stake rather than the fine detail of future treaty negotiations.
The Conservative Party could yet implode
Why the Prime Minister picked this particular fight with the EU at this particular time is puzzling. It is certainly difficult to understand from an economic point of view; calling into question the country’s involvement in the EU single market was hardly the tonic that the UK economy needed in a week in which it emerged that GDP growth had turned negative for the third time since the global financial crisis. Nor does the Prime Minister’s move make sense from a geopolitical perspective. The unstable situation in North Africa at present makes it more important than ever that the EU speak with one voice on international issues, a fact that David Cameron has tacitly acknowledged by committing UK personnel to an EU training mission in Mali. There will be further tests of this sort ahead but such challenges will be unquestionably harder to meet if the UK leads other EU member states into another decade of institutional naval gazing.
Perhaps the most obvious explanation for the Bloomberg speech is a party political one in which David Cameron sought to silence Conservative eurosceptics by signing up to their longstanding demand for an in/out referendum. Some also see Cameron as attempting to contain the UK Independence Party (UKIP) by taking its leader, Nigel Farage, up on his offer not to challenge Conservative candidates in the next general election in exchange for an unequivocal commitment to hold an in/out referendum. The problem with this line of explanation is that the Prime Minister’s announcement on 23 January truly satisfied neither Tory hardliners nor UKIP.
Further backbench rebellions from Conservative Members of Parliament can be envisaged unless the Prime Minister commits to an in/out referendum sooner rather than later and agrees to hold a public vote even if no new settlement with the EU can be achieved. Boris Johnson, Cameron’s rival for the Conservative leadership, has already sown new seeds of discontent here by supporting calls for a referendum before 2015. Nigel Farage, meanwhile, has emerged stronger than ever from the Bloomberg speech by being able to claim credit for the Prime Minister’s referendum pledge while rescinding his offer of a pre-election pact with the Tories because of the contingent character of Cameron’s commitment.
A referendum on EU membership along the lines envisaged in the Bloomberg speech is by no means inevitable for the reasons discussed above. This does not mean, however, that David Cameron can delay political preparations for such a vote. If the Prime Minister is really serious about putting his ‘heart and soul’ into campaigning for staying in the EU under a new settlement then he has his work cut out. A Guardian/ICM poll published in the light of last week’s referendum pledge suggests that 49% would vote to leave the EU. Such views are not set in stone, however, with around 30% of likely ‘no’ voters describing their voting intentions as probable rather than definite. Changing these voters’ minds is critical for a possible future referendum and, even if this vote does not transpire, for winning back public support in the UK for the European project.
Some commentators have praised David Cameron’s efforts to set out a positive vision of UK membership in his Bloomberg speech. Self-evident though the Prime Minister’s remarks were on the EU’s contribution to peace in Europe they sounded less than convincing from a leader who couldn’t find the time to travel to Oslo in December to see the EU awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This argument will, in any case, carry limited weight with those voters for whom war in Europe is a distant memory. More promising in this regard was Cameron’s quiet questioning of calls to follow Norway and Switzerland into a free-trade agreement with the EU in place of membership, an argument that will receive a hearing if the Conservative leader turns up the volume about the loss of UK influence in Europe from such an arrangement.
In truth, however, the Bloomberg speech betrayed the shallow understanding of Europe that underpins contemporary Conservative thinking. Central to this (mis)understanding are two key beliefs: the first being that France, Germany and other EU partners are motivated by federalist fervour rather than, as is so plainly the case, national interest; and the second insisting that reforming Europe is a peculiarly British phenomenon when it so clearly is not. On the first of these points, Cameron wasted a glorious opportunity to slay the federalist dragon by making it clear that cooperation between EU member states occurs where national interests overlap and cannot persist for long when they don’t, preferring instead to portray the UK as an isolated pragmatist that ‘come[s] to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional’. On the second point, Cameron’s calls for a more competitive, flexible, accountable and fair Europe without weighing EU leaders’ efforts to achieve exactly that over the last twenty years was another serious misstep. At best, this insistence on re-drawing Europe on a blank page misses an opportunity to build alliances with other EU leaders over on-going reform efforts. At worst, it paints Europe in black and white rather than shades of grey, asking people to think of the EU as being entirely uncompetitive, inflexible, unaccountable and unfair only to wonder why they then won’t vote for continued membership.
Dermot Hodson is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Birkbeck. He is the co-author of ‘British Brinksmanship and Gaelic Games: EU Treaty Ratification in the UK and Ireland from a Two Level Game Perspective’ (with Imelda Maher, University College Dublin), which is forthcoming in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. Thanks to Joni Lovenduski, Jason Edwards and Rosie Campbell for comments. The usual disclaimer applies.