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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle