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Cameron's EU strategy puts party interests before the national interest

A pledge to hold an in/out referendum will appease Tory MPs, but it will not deliver for Britain.

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

This week the curtain rises on the new Westminster year - and already speculation about the Prime Minister’s much delayed speech on Europe has begun. But the fact 2013 is earmarked to begin with such a speech reveals more about the Prime Minister’s weakness at home than his agenda abroad.

Both the timing and content of this speech have little to do with policy and everything to do with politics. The truth is that David Cameron didn’t give the speech in 2012 because he didn't know what to say. To deliver for the country the speech would need to be about how Britain plans to lead the reshaping of post-crisis Europe. Yet for the speech to deliver for his own party, only one line will really matter... and that is whether or not David Cameron commits to an in/out referendum.

It is this tension that has left the Tory leader stranded speechless for the past year between the party interest and the national interest. If, for reasons of his party's divisions and weakness in the polls, he succumbs to calls in the coming days for an in/out referendum, he will have to answer questions not just about his political judgement, but also about his political priorities. Of course the Prime Minister may hope that such an in/out referendum announcement can help convince UKIP voters to return to the Conservative party. But instead he should be asking himself: is Europe really as much of a priority in the public's mind for this new year as it is for him or his party?

And even if he thinks it is: is an in/out referendum really the biggest issue we have to face in Europe today? My answer to both would be no. Why?

First, British business leaders are already nervous, but this could turn to real fear if an under pressure Prime Minister now announces an in/out referendum and the perception takes hold that many Conservative MPs - including some cabinet ministers - are simply awaiting exit. If the government disagrees with this they should publish, along with David Cameron's speech, all the advice to ministers from BIS and the Treasury about the impact of such an announcement on UK business and inward investment prospects.

Announcing an in/out referendum halfway through this parliament to take place more than halfway through the next, given the Conservatives' hostility towards Europe, could risk up to seven years of economic uncertainty, threatening vital investment and effectively playing Roulette with the country's economic future. Indeed, even his own Foreign Secretary William Hague has told the House of Commons that "It would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.” The Prime Minster himself has made much in recent days of his ambition to secure an EU-US trade deal during the UK's G8 Presidency. It's a laudable economic goal, but he seems less keen to recognise that to achieve it relies entirely on British membership of Europe. A Britain outside Europe would be unable to even aspire to such a deal.

Second, focusing on an in/out referendum now actually risks the UK missing the best chance in a generation to reform Europe so that it better serves our interests and meets our expectations. Simply presenting a shopping list of repatriations - backed by the threat of exit – will not deliver for Britain and will undermine our ability to shape and lead the broader project of EU reform.

If he disagrees, the Prime Minister should publish alongside his speech the advice to FCO ministers about what impact this approach would have on our influence in Europe at this crucial time. Labour takes a different view. We are clear that any future decision on a referendum should be based on changes in Europe, not movements in the polls.

While the Prime Minister is right to recognise that Europe, and our position within it, is changing, he is wrong to imply that these changes inevitably threaten our interests. It is still unclear how these changes will affect Britain’s relationship with the EU, or indeed the nature of our membership.

That is why the priority must be for Britain to use the coming months and years to shape and lead this process of change by pursuing an agenda of wide ranging reforms and not simply narrow repatriation. Britain’s real interests lie in the EU as a whole being reformed to make it fit for purpose and better placed to compete in the new global race. But our chance of succeeding in this task is increased if it is positioned as right for all European countries, not just the UK. Subsidiarity within the EU is not a new idea, but an old one worth focusing on anew. At its inception the EU was designed to accommodate varying levels of integration and Britain has always benefited from this. If however, Britain were to open the door to an a la carte EU, it could be us that suffer as other member states demand reforms that undermine the single market.

Institutional flexibility and not unilateral national repatriations is what will best protect British interests within a reformed EU. In the past the case for the EU was based on delivering peace and prosperity. Today these are the foundations on which we must build a reformed Europe that effectively amplifies the power of each of its members.

Labour is clear that Britain's future lies within the European Union. But we also recognise that Europe today needs a reform agenda that prioritises growth, strengthens the single market, pools resources in defence effectively, promotes free trade deals regionally and globally, and develops systems to tackle climate change, cross border terror and crime.

Few would deny that David Cameron’s speech comes at a crucial time, but sadly it seems to be being made for all the wrong reasons. It simply won't have been worth the wait if Cameron's internal weakness results in a speech for his backbenchers instead of one for his country.