Conservative politicians have been busy spinning David Cameron’s veto of a new EU treaty last night as indicative of a strong stand in defence of the ‘British national interest’. In reality, it’s a sign of the weakness of the British position. Cameron had no choice other than to veto a treaty because he knew that the political pressure for a referendum on it in the UK would have been irresistible, and that the treaty would almost certainly have been rejected by the British people. As a result, Cameron has jeopardised a deal that might – just might – have saved the euro, on which millions of UK jobs depend. The UK has ended up isolated, and it’s by no means clear that even the hallowed interests of the City have been safeguarded, as under the draft deal agreed last night, it appears that the EU will still be able to impose a financial-transaction tax on the dealings of Eurozone-based banks in London.
All of this could have been avoided if we’d been given an in / out referendum on the EU much earlier, such as when the Lisbon Treaty was ratified. The fact that we weren’t offered this choice is the Labour Party’s fault, as it was they who reneged in government on their manifesto promise to hold a referendum on the EU Constitution, which is what, by common consent, the Lisbon Treaty was in all but name.
And while we’re on the subject of manifesto pledges, the Liberal Democrats, who more than any other party are desperate to avoid a referendum, ought really now to be demanding one. That’s because what was agreed last night is incontrovertibly a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU, which is what the Lib Dems stated in their last manifesto to be the grounds for justifying an in / out referendum. But have we heard the Lib Dems making any such demands? Of course not. Instead, their leader Nick Clegg is said to be 100% behind the stand taken by the PM last night. Why wouldn’t he be? It was the only way to avoid a referendum.
So the Lib Dems will be going around saying that, as any stricter fiscal rules for the Eurozone will be agreed outside the terms of any existing or new EU-wide treaty, they don’t involve a fundamental change in the UK’s relationship with the EU. And the Tories are saying no referendum is needed because no additional powers have been ceded to the EU, and no treaty has been agreed.
In reality, however, last night’s events have demonstrated the need for a definitive in / out referendum more conclusively than ever, and not just because last night’s deal involves a fundamental shift in the UK’s relationship with the EU. Cameron wouldn’t have been in the position of falling between the two stools of trying to safeguard the euro while at the same time defending the ‘British national interest’ if an earlier referendum had resolved the question of whether the British people believe that even being in the EU in the first place, let alone the euro, is in the British national interest. The problem is the political and business elites want the UK to be in the EU, but the British people – probably in the majority – don’t; so we end up in the ridiculous position of trying to be at once in Europe but not of it.
A referendum would have presented the opportunity for the UK, once and for all, to decide whether we want to be committed members of the EU or to let the EU get on with all the political, economic and fiscal integration they like, but without the UK being on board. Not having had such a referendum means that the UK’s very participation in the EU lacks democratic legitimacy. Consequently, there was absolutely no way Cameron could have committed the UK to yet another treaty without at last giving the British people the opportunity to decide whether we want to be of Europe as well as in it.
But that’s the clarity that’s needed now: not just for the UK and its people, but for the EU and Europe as a whole. The rest of the EU, with the possible exception of Hungary, the Czech Republic and Sweden, is understandably hacked off by David Cameron’s bulldog posturing. They’re defending their own respective national interests, too, after all, the difference being that they – or at least the French and Germans – view a successful euro and further EU integration as being in those interests. And they’re right that a successful euro is at least in the short-term interest of the UK, too, as the euro’s collapse would spell disaster for the UK economy just as much as it would for the Eurozone. So it’s not unreasonable for them to expect the UK to get behind their last-ditch plan to save the euro and to set aside ‘selfish’ national interest – such as protecting the City – in favour of the ‘common good’ of a prosperous Eurozone. It’s just that Cameron has no mandate to make such a deal, because the British political class has avoided seeking one for decades.
However, last night’s events have conclusively demonstrated the need for Britain’s position within, or outside of, the EU to be clarified once and for all, before we move irrevocably to a two-track EU with the UK on the margins. The British people need to know where we’re going with respect to the EU. And the other EU states and Europe as a whole need to know whether the UK is truly behind the EU project and the euro, or not.
Europe needs Britain to decide; the British people demand the right to decide. Will David Cameron finally demonstrate the leadership once shown by his role model, Churchill, and let Britain choose whether it is with or against an EU with Germany at its centre?