Cameron's EU referendum may never happen

It is odd to speak of an EU referendum as inevitable when few believe the Conservatives will win a majority at the next election.

Yet again this morning, David Cameron was interviewed about a speech on the EU he still hasn't given. Asked on the Today programme whether the over-hyped address had been completed, Cameron said it was "finished and ready to go" (subsequently amending this to "largely finished").

Once again, he said that he would seek to reach a "new settlement" with the EU before seeking the "consent" of the British people for the changes, a clear promise of a referendum. In his speech, which is now due to be delivered on 23 January (having been pushed back from 22 January in order to avoid clashing with celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the Élysée Treaty between France and Germany), Cameron will say that after the next election, a Conservative government would seek to repatriate significant powers from the EU before offering the voters a choice between the new terms and withdrawal.

As such, a referendum is now viewed by most as inevitable. Yet this pledge is dependent on an outcome that increasingly few believe is likely: a Conservative majority at the next election. A reformation of the coalition would likely scupper any plans Cameron has to bring back major powers from Brussels. In addition, it is unclear how Cameron will respond if he proves unable to secure the changes he wishes to see. This morning, he simply told John Humphrys: "I'm confident we will get the changes that we want, we'll have a new settlement and then we'll put that to the British people." Given the obstacles to a referendum, it is surprising how many now speak as if it is a certainty.

Neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats will immediately match Cameron's pledge to hold an EU referendum, both arguing that it makes no sense to discuss a public vote until the eurozone crisis has been resolved. However, it is also true that they are unlikely to allow Cameron to go into the 2015 election as the only party leader willing to offer the public a say on Europe. The Lib Dems have previously supported an in/out referendum, while senior Labour figures, including Jon Cruddas and Jim Murphy, both argue that a vote should be held at some point in the future. In all probability, then, an EU referendum is coming. But no one should assume it will be Cameron who holds it.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the EU headquarters on December 14, 2012 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.