Cameron pulled in all directions on Europe

Ed Miliband accuses Cameron of leading the UK to the EU "exit" as David Davis demands two referendums.

Ken Clarke is one of the few prominent Conservative politicians still prepared to make the case for EU integration and he did it with gusto on the Today programme this morning. It was "complete folly" to put our membership at risk, he said, lamenting that the country had gone into "a nervous breakdown" over the subject. He dismissed the 53 Tory MPs who voted for a real-terms cut in the EU budget as "extreme Eurosceptics" and revealed that David Cameron had assured him that he was committed to continued British membership of the union.

"David Cameron assures the public, he’s always assured me, that he believes, as I do, that Britain’s place in the modern world has got to be in the EU.

It would be a disaster for our influence in global political events; it would be a disaster for the British economy, if we were to leave the EU. It damages our influence in these great critical events of the moment if we keep casting doubt on our continued membership."

Cameron, meanwhile, is being pulled in all directions on Europe today. In a speech at the CBI's annual conference, (which will also hear addresses from Cameron, Vince Cable and Boris Johnson), Ed Miliband will accuse him of allowing Britain to "sleepwalk towards exit" in a "betrayal of our national interest."

The Labour leader will say:

For more than three decades, our membership of the EU has seemed to be a settled question. Not any more.

Public scepticism about the EU has been on the rise for some time. Some cabinet ministers in this government now openly say we would be better off outside the EU.

And many of our traditional allies in Europe clearly think Britain is heading to the exit door. Those of us, like me, who passionately believe that Britain is stronger in the EU cannot be silent in a situation like this. I will not allow our country to sleepwalk towards exit because it would be a betrayal of our national interest.

He will add that were the UK to leave the EU, it would be "the United States, China, the EU in the negotiating room - and Britain in the overflow room. We would end up competing on low wages and low skills: an offshore low-value economy, a race to the bottom".

At the same time, Cameron's former leadership rival David Davis will use a speech at St Stephen's Club to call for the PM to offer not one but two referendums on Europe. The first would be a vote on what powers the government should seek to repatriate from Brussels, the second, to be held following the conclusion of negotiations, would be a vote on whether to remain in the EU.

Cameron is still expected to use a speech before Christmas to outline plans to hold a referendum after the next election on a "new EU settlement" for Britain, but Davis and other Tory MPs are growing increasingly impatient. As Davis said on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday: "Nobody believes it and why should they? The British public have been promised a referendum by the three major parties, and every single one has not delivered. Now, they may have their reasons, but they haven’t delivered and so the public feel they’ve been lied to – they won’t believe any more promises on referenda actually."

Elsewhere, the ever-helpful Boris Johnson uses his Telegraph column to warn Cameron that nothing less than a veto of the EU budget will do. He writes:

It is time for David Cameron to put on that pineapple-coloured wig and powder blue suit, whirl his handbag round his head and bring it crashing to the table with the words no, non, nein, neen, nee, ne, ei and ochi, until they get the message.

Yet a veto, by compelling the EU to set annual budgets through qualified majority voting, would almost certainly lead to a large increase in the UK contribution. If Cameron wants to make a eurosceptic gesture, it could prove a costly one.

David Cameron is expected to announce details of an EU referendum in a speech before the end of the year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”