I missed the speech on Wednesday morning; I was working at the time. I read the reactions to it, I listened to the commentators, and I watched Prime Minister's Questions. My gut reaction? I was incensed. What an 'omni-shambles' I thought. An in/out referendum is not a bad idea and retaining the consent of the British people to speak for them on the European stage is essential, but the prime minister's proposals to wait four years to have a referendum, and hope that negotiations went his way in the meantime, was surely the worst of both worlds.
Then I finally read the speech for myself.
The last time I wrote about British attitudes to the European Union, I decried a lack of vision and an obsession with scaremongering in British politics. I am thankful, therefore, to the prime minister for offering a positive vision of Europe's future in an increasingly hostile and unpredictable world. Furthermore, I am glad that he agrees the best way for Britain to realise this vision is as an engaged and committed member of the European Union.
My concerns remain about the uncertainty the strategy he outlined will surely cause, yet nevertheless my overall reaction changed from one of fury to sympathy. Sympathy for an embattled prime minister trying to do what is right for his country, but stuck between a rock and a hard place with the rise of Ukip threatening to marginalise his party among its more eurosceptic voters, and many of his own MPs making his task even harder by continuously rebelling against him as punishment for not taking an equally hard line on Europe.
I like David Cameron, as much as I may disagree with him on issues such as Europe, but I fear for him. He clearly realised that his party's obsession with weakening the UK's relationship with the rest of the EU and his right-wing rivals' commitment to leaving altogether, was overshadowing his agenda for economic recovery. So, by giving them what they wanted: an in/out referendum in return for securing his re-election in 2015, he would be freeing himself up to focus on the immediate tasks at hand for the remainder of his first term, and save having to answer the European question for his second.
Therein lies the rub.
Mr Cameron said in his speech: "With courage and conviction I believe we can achieve a new settlement in which Britain can be comfortable and all our countries can thrive. And when the referendum comes let me say now that if we can negotiate such an arrangement, I will campaign for it with all my heart and soul."
Surely this must also mean, however, that if he is not successful in negotiating such a settlement, he will be forced to lead the 'OUT' campaign himself - or resign. Moreover, considering that he has chosen to put before the cart before the horse and secure the necessary authorisation from the British people only after attempting to negotiate a new settlement, why should our European partners expend all the time and effort required to make the necessary changes to accommodate our country, knowing that its prime minister no longer has the authority to close the deal? Indeed, it is quite possible that he could win every concession on his shopping list (although what is on that list we do not yet know) and yet the public could still vote to leave the European Union. What is more, is that it will take four years to answer any of these questions at a time when the rest of the Union is undergoing a radical transformation to secure its very survival.
It is right we prioritise the British national interest above all else, but we cannot do this without first putting ourselves in the shoes of our partners on the other side of the negotiating table. However, I do passionately agree with Mr Cameron that our continued membership of the European Union is essential to preserving the national interest. So, how can we British pro-Europeans help our beleaguered prime minister?
The Labour party and the Liberal Democrats may oppose his proposals for an in/out referendum (for now) and rightly harbour serious concerns over his overall strategy, but neither is immune from anti-European dissent within their own ranks. The more they weaken the prime minister's position, the more they embolden opponents of EU membership as a whole and further jeopardise the national interest.
The genie is out of the bottle. A referendum has been promised and, according to consecutive opinion polls, is demanded by the British people. There is no room to manoeuvre. There is no going back. We must go through with it and we must win it. However, making such a referendum conditional on the outcome of the forthcoming negotiations is folly - not just because there is no guarantee that they will deliver the desired result, but also because it would be a false choice. Our place in the EU cannot be boiled down to a series of contractual agreements any more than a marriage between two people can be boiled down to a set of job descriptions. It is an ever-changing and evolving relationship as the Treaty of Rome's stated goal of 'ever closer union' clearly stipulates.
Any deal we negotiate now will be out of date in 20 years and will surely prompt renewed calls for yet another new deal and another referendum from those in the eurosceptic contingent who continue to fundamentally fail to understand how the EU works. Instead, we must address the democratic deficit within the Union itself to ensure the British people have a direct relationship with decision-makers in Brussels. We need an elected president and stronger powers for the already elected Parliament. We need an intensive public engagement programme, explaining to our fellow citizens how the EU works and how they can participate in the ongoing conversation about its indefinite evolution and the way in which that will affect, and ultimately improve, their everyday lives. The question we should be asking the country in any referendum, therefore, is whether they still wish to be part of that conversation.
This is the bold, ambitious, and open Europe that I want to see before the end of my lifetime and if the prime minister is willing to make it his priority too, then I am willing to support him all the way.
(The views expressed in this article are my personal opinions only and not the official position of the European Movement UK)
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