Cameron’s referendum: a weak leader sleepwalking to EU exit

It is widely reported that David Cameron will today announce his intention to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU and hold an in-out referendum, assuming the Tories win a majority after 2015.

I intend to blog at greater length about this later, but it is important to understand the implications of what Cameron has conceded.  The policy is clearly dictated by fear – fear of UKIP and its apparent surge in the polls.  UKIP will tell us that they are about far more than EU membership, but this goes to the heart of UKIP’s appeal, and that of the tabloid press.

What will be up for renegotiation?  Tory and media rhetoric makes this obvious.  We’re talking about “repatriation” of social and employment protection legislation, health and safety, environmental protection, consumer protection.  In other words, this is all about shifting the balance of power in favour of corporate interests.  Its effect – and intention – would be to allow British business to cut costs, cut wages, cut standards.

And to the extent it does that, it completely violates a fundamental principle of the EU – that of a single market in which no member state is able to legislate to undercut the others, or to exclude their labour or produce.  It is inconceivable that the UK will be able to negotiate a treaty that allows it a privileged position on these issues, because they all affect the single market.  Cameron is a weak man whose entire political life has been an ode to entitlement – he, and his party, appear incapable of understanding that their case is essentially about British privilege.

He’s already trimming to the far right on Europe – it’s in his political DNA (witness his decision that the Conservatives in the European Parliament should sit with a motley group of Eastern European neo-fascists and anti-Semites rather than forming part of the mainstream Centre-Right grouping).

This is a policy born of fear, and the hard right in his party knows it and will exploit it. They also – I believe – know that a renegotiation that traduces such fundamental principles of the Union will fail. Because he is consumed by fear of UKIP and the toxic Eurosceptics in his own party, Cameron has handed them all the cards; they will be immeasurably strengthened by this. It is impossible, therefore, to see a situation in which a majority Tory government will be able to deliver a renegotiated settlement that it can support at a referendum.  And having tasted blood, the Tory right – unconstrained, as ever, by considerations of rationality or evidence – will continue to demand more and more from Cameron. At what point has Cameron in office ever shown the moral courage to stand up to the right on Europe?

The logic seems unescapable: a vote for the Tories in 2015 is, de facto, a vote for withdrawal from the EU.  And for a policy born out of ignorance, fear and overweening entitlement.

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One thought on “Cameron’s referendum: a weak leader sleepwalking to EU exit

  1. The default clause of Cameron’s announcement, i.e. that if returned to power he will hold a referendum in 2017 regardless of progress on renegotiation, is a straightforward threat. It means that he is holding a gun to the head of UK membership, warning the EU that he will pull the trigger unless he gets his way on the repatriation of powers. But he has no leverage with the rest of the EU, while UKIP are happily baying from the sidelines “shoot, shoot!”

    The suspicion is that he will plead with Merkel and Hollande for some face-saving concessions that he can sell as his handbag moment, while trying to avoid giving too much ground on regulation of The City. The 2017 deadline is clearly intended to give the latter more time to strengthen their position. The real negotiation won’t happen before 2016, which means Cameron hopes he has parked the issue ahead of the 2015 election and has provided the UKIP-inclined with a reason to vote Tory.

    I would suggest a more nuanced interpretation of “corporate interests”. The EU is a neoliberal and corporatist endeavour. Harmonisation is not the product of the megalomania of Brussels bureacrats but of corporate lobbying. The so-called social legislation of the EU is concerned with harmonisation of employment-related social costs – i.e. ensuring a level playing field for business. UKIP can be seen as representing the interests of small capital (wage repression, protection etc) against big capital (globalisation, harmonisation etc).

    The real worry is that the “Cameron compromise” is ultimately about dividing up the UK between a low-wage, small capital economy outside of the M25 and a corporate, big capital economy within it. The rest of the EU won’t have a problem with this, as it’s a continuation of current trends and fits with the existing model vis-a-vis the relationship of the core and the periphery. We just need to get used to the idea that the North of England is converging with Slovakia.

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