David Cameron made a historic speech regarding Europe this morning on our future relationship with Europe. I voted for the Referendum Party in 1997, my only lapse from voting Conservative and two weeks before joining the Conservatives as a Party member and so I am delighted that a leader of one of the major Parties, has finally taken a step back to look at where we are with the EU before taking a giant leap forward in negotiating a better deal and then asking us what we think.
The Prime Minister and I come to the matter of Europe from different ends of the spectrum. My default position is to leave the EU and make our own way in the world unless I can be persuaded that a new relationship can be formed that retains opportunities for free trade and employment but frees us from the shackles of bureaucracy, a fundamentally undemocratic set of institutions and the lavish spending of our money that is best kept in the pockets of UK taxpayers. However our views converge when considering his five principles for the starting point of any renewed relationship, namely competitiveness, flexibility, power being able to flow back to member states, democratic accountability and fairness.
There is a lot to consider before we are close to having a referendum. An audit of EU powers has already begun in readiness for renegotiation. Legislation will need to be drafted ready to put before Parliament after the General Election due in 2015. Then there is the obvious point of having to win a Conservative majority at the next election in order to see any of this happen.
The speech seems to have gone down well in many quarters but not with everyone. Ed Miliband ruled out the possibility of Labour asking people what they wanted when on the Andrew Marr show saying, “My position is no – We don’t want an in out referendum”. Nick Clegg does not believe that this move is “in the national interest” and Nigel Farage asks why the referendum cannot happen immediately. Eight out of ten people want to have a say in a referendum on the EU so Labour and the Liberal Democrats’ position is indefensible. They would not vote for the legislation required for a referendum to be held before 2015, thus making an earlier resolution as wanted by UKIP impossible.
Politics is the art of the possible so the Prime Minister is absolutely right to aim for a date post-2015. Polling by YouGov shows how in just two months, the views of the public as to whether we stay in or out are very unsettled with a 21% lead for those wishing to leave the EU being replaced by a 6% lead for those wishing to remain a member. The matter of Europe should not and must not relegate the UK economy to anything less than the highest priority for our attention. However it is incredibly important and therefore is worth getting right. Five years to establish the conditions of a new relationship with the EU, introducing primary legislation and having a national debate is not actually that long.
The original 1975 referendum has locked us into a loveless relationship with our European neighbours for 38 years. Now I know that people my age and older believe that things don’t last as long as they did, but don’t expect a second bite of the cherry for some decades to come if you don’t get the answer in the referendum that you favour. Unless you are happy with the status quo, it’s time to get behind this decision and have your say, something that will only happen under a Conservative government.