Cameron's EU speech: the questions he will need to answer

The questions the PM will face on renegotiation, the referendum and withdrawal.

Barring any unforseen hitches (and one wouldn't bet against it), David Cameron will finally deliver his long-delayed speech on the EU at 8am tomorrow at Bloomberg's London HQ. (The venue for Ed Balls's famous demolition of austerity in August 2010.) Here are some of the questions he'll need to answer. 

Which powers would a Conservative government seek to repatriate from the EU?

Cameron has promised to use the negotiations over the future shape of the eurozone to secure a "fresh settlement" for Britain, leaving open the question of which specific powers he wants to repatriate from Brussels. One guide to the Prime Minister's intentions is the last Conservative general election manifesto, which declared, "a Conservative government will negotiate for three specific guarantees – on the Charter of fundamental rights, on criminal justice, and on social and employment legislation – with our european partners to return powers that we believe should reside with the UK, not the EU." It was the Tories' failure to win a majority and the formation of the coalition that meant they were unable to fulfil this pledge. 

More recently, the eurosceptic Fresh Start group of Conservative MPs made the following demands in its Manifesto for Change

1. An emergency brake for any member state in financial services.
 
2. Repatriation to member states of the competence in social and employment law. Failing that a UK opt-out and emergency brake.
 
3. A UK opt-out from policing and criminal justice measures not already covered by block opt-out.
 
4. A new legal safeguard for the single market.
 
5. The abolition of the Strasbourg seat of the European parliament, the economic and social committee, and the committee of the regions
In his foreword to the manifesto, William Hague wrote: "Many of the proposals are already government policy, some could well become future government or Conservative party policy and some may require further thought."
 
Tory MPs will be watching closely tomorrow to see how many make it into Cameron's speech. 
 
What form would a referendum take?
 
We already know that Cameron, who has pledged to seek "fresh consent" for any new settlement, will use his speech to outline plans to hold a referendum at some point in the next parliament. But the Prime Minister will need to make it clear whether this will be a vote on Britain's EU membership in general or on the renegotiation. If the latter, as seems likely, Cameron will need to say whether a 'no' vote would amount to a vote for withdrawal or rather a rejection of the "new settlement". The Prime Minister's warning that the British people could "drift towards the exit", included in the pre-released extracts of his speech, suggests that a 'no' vote will mean Britain leaving the EU. 
 
When would a referendum be held?
 
With any renegotiation likely to take several years, the assumption in Westminster is that the referendum would be held in the middle of the next parliament. Cameron will need to offer some indication of the expected timeframe tomorrow. 
 
Will the referendum pledge be enshrined in legislation?
 
Conservative MPs, some of whom have never forgiven Cameron for breaking his "cast-iron" promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, are demanding that any referendum pledge is enshrined in law. This, they hope, would eliminate any risk of backsliding by the PM.  
 
A Commons vote on a bill authorising an EU referendum would also force Labour and the Liberal Democrats to either vote with the Conservatives or stand accused of denying the British people a say. For this reason, it is a tactic that may appeal to Cameron and George Osborne, who performed a similar trick with his Welfare Uprating Bill. 
 
What happens if the renegotiations are unsuccessful?
 
Cameron's strategy is premised on the belief that Britain will prove successful in seeking the return of powers from the EU. "I am confident we will get the changes that we want," he said during a recent appearance on the Today programme. Cameron believes that Germany, fearful of handing greater influence to protectionist France, is prepared to make concessions to the UK, rather than risk it walking out. 
 
But the Prime Minister, who is expected to take questions from the media after his speech, will be challenged to say how he would respond if his efforts at repatriation proved largely or totally unsuccessful. Rather than holding a referendum on the "new settlement", would a simple in/out vote be held? 
 
Are there any circumstances in which you would support EU withdrawal?
 
Some Conservatives, most notably Michael Gove, argue that any renegotiation will prove unsuccessful unless Cameron makes it clear that he is prepared to support withdrawal if the EU refuses to pay ball. In a concession to such figures, Cameron has conceded that Britain would not "collapse" if it left the union. But the PM, who has said repeatedly that he does not want the UK to adopt a Norwegian-style "associate membership", is unlikely to go any further tomorrow.
 
Would you allow Conservative cabinet ministers to campaign for withdrawal?
 
If Cameron's attempt to repatriate powers is largely unsuccessful, a significant minority of cabinet ministers are likely to support withdrawal. Eric Pickles, for instance, recently commented, "If it's in our firm national interest that we should remain in the EU – and I sincerely hope that is the case – then we should stay. But we shouldn't stay at any price." The Spectator's James Forsyth has reported that there are "at least nine Cabinet members" who would be inclined to vote "out" in a referendum if Cameron only proves able to secure minor concessions such as the exemption of the NHS from the Working Time Directive and restrictions on immigration from the EU. 
 
Confronted by a cabinet split in 1975, Harold Wilson took the unusual step of suspending collective ministerial responsibility in order to allow his ministers to support either side in the Europe referendum campaign. Seven Labour cabinet ministers - Tony Benn, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, William Ross, Peter Shore John Silkin, Eric Varley - went on to unsuccessfully argue for withdrawal from the EEC (the vote was 67-33 in favour of membership).
 
Will Cameron follow this precedent? When Ed Miliband asked him at last week's Prime Minister's Questions whether he would allow Tory cabinet ministers to support withdrawal, he simply ignored the question. He will find it harder to do so tomorrow. 
 
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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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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