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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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.