Prime Minister David Cameron, seeking to give his vision of a looser U.K. relationship with the European Union in a speech tomorrow, may place bringing home decision-making on finance, the courts and labor at the heart of his pitch.
Clues to the premier’s thinking were given yesterday by a group of Conservative lawmakers in a manifesto backed by Foreign Secretary William Hague. The Fresh Start group, who number more than 100 Tories, said the prime minister must renegotiate the terms of Britain’s affiliation to the 27-nation bloc. Fellow EU leaders see little room for such a move.
Unlike some of their Tory colleagues, the Fresh Start group doesn’t argue for British withdrawal from the EU. Instead, it seeks to fight threats to financial services, as well as repatriating powers on social and employment law, such as working hours. It also seeks a U.K. opt-out from EU policing and criminal justice rules to prevent European courts overturning British judges’ decisions.
“It won’t be a shopping list, it can’t be; no sensible politician would start with one,” Sheila Lawlor, director of the Politeia research institute in London, said in a telephone interview. “You have to flag up the problems, illustrate them. It will be left quite open because there is a great deal of unpicking to be done.”
Cameron’s Tories are trailing the Labour opposition in opinion polls as parties start positioning themselves for the 2015 general election, beset by a struggling economy and the biggest spending cuts since World War II. There are growing splits between the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners over issues including tax and welfare as well as the EU.
While the premier has not yet set out in details what he will tell his audience in the Netherlands, he has ruled out an “in-out” referendum for the British people on EU membership. He has said only that he wants to reclaim unspecified powers from the bloc and put the result to a plebiscite after the 2015 election, with the government arguing to stay in.
He dismissed as a “false choice” yesterday calls for an early vote on leaving the 27-nation bloc, a move that won’t satisfy the hard core of euroskeptics who are calling for one.
Two Tory lawmakers, Bill Cash and Bernard Jenkin, published a pamphlet today calling for an immediate referendum seeking a mandate to renegotiate membership, with the results of those talks to be put to a second plebiscite.
“It’s such an important issue, it’s hardly surprising there are many different views about how we should proceed,” Jenkin told reporters in London. Of the EU, he said, “we want to get out of their hair.”
Cameron’s coalition partners and political opponents united to condemn the premier’s plans as vague, divisive for his party and bad for British business.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, repeated his opposition to a British exit from the EU.
“I don’t think you serve the British national interest or protect the 3 million jobs that are dependent on our place in Europe if you somehow suggest we are heading to the exit door,” Clegg said during his weekly phone-in on LBC radio today.
Liberal Democrat Vince Cable, who serves as business secretary in Cameron’s government, will say in a speech tonight that “reopening the whole question of British membership creates additional uncertainty at a time when there is already fragile economic confidence in the wake of the financial crisis,” according to his office.
“Imagine an investor thinking now: Should I be investing in Britain, or Germany, or Denmark or a whole range of other countries?” Labour leader Ed Miliband told the BBC’s “Today” radio program. “If we put up a sign around Britain saying, ‘we might be out of Europe within five years,’ I don’t think that’s going to be good for our country.”
Miliband said Cameron “has been dragged by a neuralgic Conservative Party towards the position he’s taking tomorrow.”
“There are so many tensions, divisions and differences within the Conservative Party that Fresh Start’s announcement fires a starting gun on what will be a bidding war within the Conservative Party to raise the bar higher for Britain staying within the EU,” Labour’s foreign-affairs spokesman, Douglas Alexander, said in an interview. “Many Conservatives talk about a referendum, not because they want consent, but because they want an exit.”
The Fresh Start group “does not go nearly far enough for many euroskeptics, both inside and outside the Conservative Party,” Tory lawmaker John Redwood wrote on his blog yesterday. “It was Conservative Party policy in opposition to repatriate our fishing grounds. It has long been U.K. policy to undertake substantial change to the Common Agricultural Policy to make it cheaper for food buyers. Many wish to see the U.K. regain control over its own energy policy and much else besides.”
EU President Herman Van Rompuy said today that he’s awaiting Cameron’s speech “to find out exactly what he is calling for” in terms of Britain’s relationship with the bloc.
“If something is called for, we will have to agree among all 27 member states,” Van Rompuy said at an event in Brussels.
Cameron will therefore walk a delicate line tomorrow, pitting being a cooperative European against the concerns from his own party. Some Conservatives are worried that if the premier isn’t robust enough in his euroskepticism, they will lose votes to the U.K. Independence Party, which campaigns for an exit from the EU and is represented in the European Parliament, though not in Britain’s House of Commons.
A poll by Ipsos Mori yesterday showed the highest level of support -- 9 percent -- the pollsters have recorded for UKIP, ahead of the Liberal Democrats at 8 percent. Ipsos MORI interviewed 1,015 adults by telephone Jan. 12-14 and didn’t specify a margin of error.
Cameron “is constrained by domestic concerns and also by some of this being dependent on other countries coming to the EU table to negotiate,” Stephen Booth, research director at the Open Europe policy forum in London, said in a telephone interview. “Part of that is going to be the euro-zone timetable” as the 17 countries that share the single currency take further steps to resolve their debt crisis.
Cameron has indicated that any referendum is dependent on him winning a majority at the 2015 election. Still, Andrea Leadsom, the Tory lawmaker who heads Fresh Start, argued yesterday that the U.K. has an opportunity to negotiate new powers right now, with the implied threat of impeding talks between euro-area nations on resolving their debt difficulties if they don’t accede to British demands.