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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Europe's elections show why liberals should avoid fatalism

France, Germany and the Netherlands suggest there is nothing inevitable about the right's advance.

Humans are unavoidably pattern-seeking creatures. We give meaning to disparate events where little or none may exist. So it is with Brexit and Donald Trump. The proximity of these results led to declarations of liberalism's demise. After decades of progress, the tide was said to have unavoidably turned.

Every election is now treated as another round in the great duel between libralism and populism. In the Netherlands, the perennial nativist Geert Wilders was gifted outsize attention in the belief that he could surf the Brexit-Trump wave to victory. Yet far from triumphing, the Freedom Party finished a distant second, increasing its seats total to 20 (four fewer than in 2010). Wilders' defeat was always more likely than not (and he would have been unable to form a government) but global events gifted him an aura of invincibility.

In France, for several years, Marine Le Pen has been likely to make the final round of the next presidential election. But it was only after Brexit and Trump's election that she was widely seen as a potential victor. As in 2002, the front républicain is likely to defeat the Front National. The winner, however, will not be a conservative but a liberal. According to the post-Trump narrative, Emmanuel Macron's rise should have been impossible. But his surge (albeit one that has left him tied with Le Pen in the first round) suggests liberalism is in better health than suggested.

In Germany, where the far-right Alternative für Deutschland was said to be remorselessly advancing, politics is returning to traditional two-party combat. The election of Martin Schulz has transformed the SPD's fortunes to the point where it could form the next government. As some Labour MPs resign themselves to perpeutal opposition, they could be forgiven for noting what a difference a new leader can make.

2016 will be forever remembered as the year of Brexit and Trump. Yet both events could conceivably have happened in liberalism's supposed heyday. The UK has long been the EU's most reluctant member and, having not joined the euro or the Schengen Zone, already had one foot outside the door. In the US, the conditions for the election of a Trump-like figure have been in place for decades. For all this, Leave only narrowly won and Hillary Clinton won three million more votes than her opponent. Liberalism is neither as weak as it is now thought, nor as strong as it was once thought.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.