If you believe some of the things said and written about my views on Europe, it must seem rather like inviting Genghis Khan to speak on the virtues of peaceful co-existence!
— Margaret Thatcher, Speech to the College of Europe, Bruges, September 20, 1988
Britain is not faring well. It is in its worst slump in terms of production since the period after the First World War. Even its impecunious citizens during the Great Depression produced more than the current, constipated lot. Back biting and secessionist tendencies have grappled Europe, hardly surprising when the books aren’t balanced and the figures don’t tally. Internally, Britain faces the prospect of a departing Scotland. The Spanish government watches Basque separatism with nervousness. Greece is waging an internal conflict of soul-searching and resentment, though talks of their exit have died down, at least for now.
With this grimness came Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement last month that Britain’s continued stay in the EU will be put to a referendum to be held in 2017. In the speech, which he had hoped initially to have in Berlin, he spoke of the British sensibility, one determined by sea, independence and pragmatism. “For us, the European Union is a means to an end- prosperity, stability, the anchor of freedom and democracy both within Europe and beyond her shores – not an end in itself” (January 23). The bombshell, though one that has been in the armaments works for a time, duly came. “Those who refuse to contemplate consulting the British people would in my view make more likely our eventual exit.”
Hence, the holding of a referendum, but only after changes to the EU have been enacted with Britannic blessing. “It will be an in-out referendum.” Effectively, Cameron is showing himself to be a Tommy two ways, wanting to get his paws on the EU design board, then putting that design to a vote with the risk that his country may well leave it altogether. Cameron’s retort would no doubt be that he is keeping his options open, but these are not just for him to take.
There are suggestions that his move came about because of a rowdy back bench fearful he would deliver a “pinko and pro-European” speech (The Guardian, January 11). The toxicity of the Tory Eurosceptics is famous, and, if taken in some dose, lethal. Given the hum drum about treaty change in Europe, they see their chance to repatriate powers from Brussels.
Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, sees Cameron’s options as few and possibly self-defeating. He may well find himself manoeuvred into a position where he will be campaigning for a departure from the EU, whatever he, himself, thinks. In the second instance, even if he gets “some of what he wants” in terms of renegotiation, Cameron may risk the situation of a vote against staying in the EU as a way of getting at his Prime Ministership. “In other words, he runs the risk that the vote is never about whether we stay in the EU or not; it becomes a mixture of people who want to leave the EU and people who want to punish Cameron” (Council on Foreign Relations, January 17).
As the EU moves towards further integration, taking the unpredictable high road of banking and monetary union, Britain’s role in that process is unclear. But what Cameron wishes to do is suggest that his heretic’s advice has a role to play. “The biggest danger to the European Union comes not from those who advocate change, but from those who denounce new thinking as heresy.”
The positioning on Cameron’s part might be clever in terms of domestic politics, but risky in terms of international punch. The otherwise seedy Tommy two ways philosophy is certainly not washing with various members of the European Parliament, including the leader Martin Schultz. Ahead of the negotiations for a reduced EU budget, he warned that members would be unwise to cede to Cameron’s demands, as the budget “would cover a time span during which at least one member state has said that it may leave the European Union” (Dawn, February 8).
Cameron did get what he wanted by the end of the week – a deal reducing the EU budget. In self-referential style, he claimed he had come along to sort out the EU’s heavily used “credit card”. For the first time in EU budget history, the austerity pundits, marshalled by the northern European states, have won. Over seven years, the EU budget will cut by 3.3 percent. But that doesn’t get away from the vital fact that Britain may well be escaping even as its fiscal imprint is being made. Such is the legacy of keeping your options open.