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.

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.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the EU headquarters on December 14, 2012 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

As Brexit gets underway, opposition grandees urge their parties – Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens – to form a pact.

A number of senior Labour and opposition politicians are calling for a cross-party alliance. In a bid to hold the Conservative government to account as Brexit negotiations kick off, party grandees are urging their leaders to put party politics to one side and work together.

The former Labour minister Chris Mullin believes that “the only way forward” is “an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats”. 

“Given the loss of Scotland, it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future," Mullin argues, but he admits, “no doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting” and laments that, “it may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop”.

But there are other Labour and Liberal grandees who are envisaging such a future for Britain’s progressive parties.

The Lib Dem peer and former party leader Ming Campbell predicts that “there could be some pressure” after the 2020 election for Labour MPs to look at “SDP Mark II”, and reveals, “a real sense among the left and the centre-left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is for a far higher degree of cooperation”.

The Gang of Four’s David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary who co-founded the SDP, warns Labour that it must “face up to reality” and “proudly and completely coherently” agree to work with the SNP.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them,” he tells me. “We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.”

The Labour peer and former home secretary Charles Clarke agrees that Labour must “open up an alliance with the SNP” on fighting for Britain to remain in the single market, calling it “an opportunity that’s just opened”. He criticises his party for having “completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP” during the 2015 election campaign, saying, “Ed Miliband completely messed that up”.

“The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election,” Clarke says. “Therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.”

Clarke also advises his party to make pacts with the Lib Dems ahead of the election in individual constituencies in the southwest up to London.

“We should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories,” he argues. “I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running – or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems – might reduce the number of Tory seats.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown agrees that such cooperation could help reduce the Tory majority. When leader, he worked informally in the Nineties with then opposition leader Tony Blair to coordinate their challenge to the Conservative government.

“We’re quite like we were in 1992 when Tony Blair and I started working together but with bells on,” Ashdown tells me. “We have to do something quite similar to what Blair and I did, we have to create the mood of a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather – I think this is going to be done much more organically than organisationally.”

Ashdown describes methods of cooperation, including the cross-party Cook-Maclennan Agreement on constitutional reform, uniting on Scottish devolution, a coordinated approach to PMQs, and publishing a list 50 constituencies in the Daily Mirror before the 1997 election, outlining seats where Labour and Lib Dem voters should tactically vote for one another to defeat Tory candidates.

“We created the climate of an expectation of cooperation,” Ashdown recalls. Pursuing the spirit of this time, he has set up a movement called More United, which urges cross-party support of candidates and campaigns that subscribe to progressive values.

He reveals that “Tory Central Office are pretty hostile to the idea, Mr Corbyn is pretty hostile to the idea”, but there are Conservative and Labour MPs who are “talking about participating in the process”.

Indeed, my colleague George reveals in his report for the magazine this week that a close ally of George Osborne has approached the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron about forming a new centrist party called “The Democrats”. It’s an idea that the former chancellor had reportedly already pitched to Labour MPs.

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell says this is “the moment” to “build a different kind of progressive activism and progressive alliance”, as people are engaging in movements more than parties. But she says politicians should be “wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution which can also be seen as simply another power grab”.

She warns against a “We’re going to have a new party, here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join” approach. “Talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness – and we have no evidence of that at the moment.”

A senior politician who wished not to be named echoes Jowell’s caution. “The problem is that if you’re surrounded by a group of people who think that greater cooperation is necessary and possible – people who all think the same as you – then there’s a terrible temptation to think that everyone thinks the same as you,” they say.

They warn against looking back at the “halcyon days” of Blair’s cooperation with the Lib Dems. “It’s worth remembering they fell out eventually! Most political marriages end in divorce, don’t they?”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.