David Cameron’s motives are entirely cynical, but his decision to go for an early referendum on our membership of the European Union in June next year should be welcomed. We report that the Prime Minister intends to hold the vote 18 months before the deadline that he set himself in January 2013 and which he repeated in the Conservative manifesto.
The reasons for his haste are easy to deduce. Mr Cameron is well aware of the limited nature of the deal he is likely to secure. Harold Wilson and James Callaghan were much mocked in 1975 for the cosmetic changes they negotiated to the United Kingdom’s terms of joining the EU two years earlier. The centrepiece was better terms for exports to Britain of New Zealand butter. But it was enough to win that referendum, 40 years ago, and thus to keep the Labour party together.
Mr Cameron’s “new terms of membership” are unlikely to be as specific. He wants member states to be allowed to disavow the aim of “ever closer union” enshrined in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, and he wants to change EU law on the free movement of workers, to allow benefits and tax credits to be withheld from new arrivals from other EU countries. The Prime Minister probably has a good idea of how much of his modest wish-list he is likely to get, and knows that, even if the negotiation were to take two whole years, he would secure no greater concessions. Given that rewriting EU treaties would take much longer, better to reach a deal, pocket promises of treaty changes later and dash for the referendum now.
Mr Cameron’s calculation is reinforced by the state of public opinion, which is currently more favourable to EU membership than it has been since before the recession. Polls suggest a majority would vote Yes to staying in the EU, with support higher still if people are asked how they vote if the Prime Minister negotiated new, unspecified terms and recommended them. No politician can look at favourable polling without wanting to take advantage of it before things have time to go awry.
It is worth noting, in passing, two less well-noticed effects of the general election. One is the eclipse of Ukip. The other is the occlusion of Boris Johnson. The Mayor of London has toyed with advocating a No vote, but his stock as a possible successor to Mr Cameron fell sharply at 10pm on 7 May, while that of the Chancellor, George Osborne, who is locked into a Yes vote, has risen.
Mr Cameron’s opportunism is bare faced. So much so that we are tempted to admire the Wilsonian skill with which he has managed his divided party. There was a time when it was assumed that the Conservative split over Europe would re-open and make the party unleadable again. It is now clear, however, that no more than 20 or 30 Conservative MPs want to leave the EU come what may. The vast majority are unenthusiastic but, like the general public, seem readily persuadable by whatever cosmetic changes Mr Cameron achieves.
There is, however, more at stake here than the future of the Conservative Party. The Independent on Sunday has always been an enthusiastic supporter of Britain’s membership of the EU. We strongly believe that it is in the interest of the British people that we are part of a single market and a social union.
But we also recognise the problem with the EU’s democratic mandate. In principle, it is right to renew the 1975 decision of the British people in new times and in a changed and larger EU. Our objection to Mr Cameron’s referendum was always one of timing. It would have made more sense to hold it after the current crisis in the eurozone has been resolved, which may take many years. But if it must be held now, let it be sooner rather than later. And let it be Yes rather than No.
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