Even before Prime Minister David Cameron's speech on Europe this Wednesday, we know that it will be disappointing. Cameron will seek to protect his euro-sceptic right wing from being seduced by Ukip rather than outline a bold vision of Europe. Cameron's likely proposals will not satisfy the eurosceptic wing of the Tory party, but they will offer a limited 'relationship' with the European Union that is neither practical nor consistent with EU membership, thereby continuing uncertainty over policy and Britain's ever more painful fence-sitting exercise.
Cameron has said that he wants the United Kingdom to remain in the EU, but his vision of the EU entails the UK being part of the single market, but extracting itself from the social and criminal justice legislation of the EU. He sees the new relationship as primarily as a free trade one. He would then put this new 'relationship' before the country in a referendum. This will appeal to the more nationalist MPs and voters who complain about dictates from Brussels, but in the end it is questionable whether Cameron can deliver what he wishes.
Let's first look at the procedural issue. Cameron wishes to give the country a referendum on Britain's relationship with Europe. The Conservatives have been fixated on the issue of a referendum on Europe, as if they were interested solely in the process and direct democracy. It has not been only the Tories however: Labour and the Liberal Democrats have at times also been seduced by the populist justification for a referendum.
In truth, those most in favour of a referendum are looking for a British exit from the EU. Cameron's phrasing of a new 'relationship' with the EU betrays his views. Britain does not have a 'relationship' with the EU, as if the EU were a separate entity, such as Britain's relationship with the United States. Britain is a member of the EU just as it is a member of the United Nations, the G-20 and other international organisations. British voters elect members of the European Parliament; Britain is a member of the European Council and has representatives within the European Commission. Far from a separate entity, Britain participates and has a say over what comes from Brussels. By using the term 'relationship', the Conservatives seek to portray the EU as a foreign entity - shame on the Conservative spin-doctors for this underhanded manipulation of public sentiment, but even more so on Labour and the Liberal Democrats for not calling the Conservatives on this.
As much as some have issues with the United Nations, no one would argue for a re-negotiation of Britain's relationship with the UN or a withdrawal from the UN. Rather Britain works from within the UN to try to effect reforms and advance the British national interest.
A referendum is a way for parliament to avoid responsibility for the result and to be able to argue afterwards that they have no choice but to implement the public will. Of course this is a specious argument. No one argues that the electorate must renew Britain's membership in international organisations every generation. Cameron's populist argument is that the British people have not had a say since 1975. No one would propose having a referendum on continued membership of the UN. There was never a referendum on Britain's UN membership, so the British people according to the Tories have never has their say on it. So is Britain's UN membership somehow less than legitimate? To have a referendum on UN or EU membership is to say that one does not subscribe to the basic tenets of membership.
It is clear that neither the Tory party nor at the moment a majority of the country really subscribes to the European project. As such Britain's membership is problematic and will become increasingly so as other move forward to integrate and resent Britain's obstruction, unless 'Europe' is debated directly and honestly.
Now for Cameron's wish list. A single market cannot be promoted without integration in what the UK might term the 'justice and social' sphere. A single market implies a level playing field for everyone - so matters such as working conditions, labour protections, product standards, regulations, and so forth need to be harmonised. The other 26 EU countries will not accept Britain with full access to the single market without complying with what are essential rules to ensure fair trade.
Cameron will on Wednesday unknowingly commit the Conservative party to take the first steps towards Britain's EU exit and there will be no turning back after that. It is time for Cameron to stop thinking about the dysfunction in his party over Europe and the next General Election and start thinking what is in Britain's strategic longer-term interest.
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