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.