David Cameron has promised a “simple” in/out referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017 if the Conservative party win the next election. Speaking yesterday, the Prime Minister said it was essential that the British public “have their say” on Europe, an issue which has not been put to referendum since 1975.
He added that the referendum would be preceded by negotiations on the terms of the UK’s membership; while his preference would be for the EU to create a widespread new treaty, if appetite for change was low, he noted that he would address British-only concerns and aim for a settlement specific to the UK.
Cameron’s speech was met with widespread criticism, with French and German politicians arguing that the UK was not in a position to pick and choose the nature of its EU membership. Guido Westerwelle, German foreign minister, commented that the EU is in need of further integration and that while he hopes the UK will continue to work actively in the EU, that “cherry picking is not an option.”
Equally, Labour leader Ed Miliband accused Mr. Cameron of acting out of fear of UKIP; many have also argued that the prime minister’s actions come mainly out of a desire to appease Tory backbenchers.
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg commented that while the Liberal Democrats have no fundamental objections to an in/out referendum, that holding the referendum so far in the future would leave the country in a period of uncertainty caused by a “protracted, ill-defined renegotiation” of the UK’s position in the EU. He added that this uncertain five-year period was likely to damage growth and hit jobs, and was not in the national interest.
Those who argue that a five year wait will deter trade and investment in the UK neglect the fact that the country has held a relatively Eurosceptic standpoint for some time, and that this has not put off potential investors for the most part.
In light of the Eurozone crisis, an air of caution is not uncalled for, and waiting a while before posing the question of the EU to the people is wise. While five years may seem an excessive time to wait, this is, of course, the absolute maximum amount of time the people would have to wait.
But the problems with Cameron’s speech come more in what has not been said. Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary, said that the Prime Minister has attempted to act as a “referee” without offering a concrete stance. As of yet, the prospect of renegotiation has been left strikingly vague. If talks with the EU don’t come to the fruition that Cameron hopes for, what then for the referendum? The ‘reformed European Union’ which he supports is, at this stage, hypothetical. And what position will he take on behalf of the party if they don’t win the next election?
In the same rite, Cameron’s motivations are based more on fear and distraction than a genuine desire to enact change. With UKIP’s popularity in the polls steadily rising, and backbenchers long awaiting a speech on Europe, offering a referendum quells the storm, at least to a degree.
Regardless of Cameron’s reasoning, a referendum is certainly called for, particularly considering that the British people haven’t had a say on the EU for 38 years. There is no harm whatsoever in gauging public opinion. Ultimately it is the timing of the referendum which will be important, and the terms on which this referendum could be held.