The sceptics are back, but what does it mean for us?
DAVID CAMERON, who saw at first hand how the Conservatives tore John Major’s government apart in the early 1990s over the Maastricht treaty, had hoped desperately to rule without having to “bang on”, as he once put it, about the European Union. It has not worked out that way.
Cameron has been brought ever closer to agreeing to hold a referendum on EU membership after the 2015 general election, even if the question to be asked remains unformed.
From the outside, it might seem like a case of deja vu, that the 2012 debate is led by the same sort of wild-haired obsessives who were dubbed a dangerous amusement 20 years ago. But times have changed. Eurosceptics have become more sophisticated operators, and, in light of the euro crisis, arguments once derided now give pause for thought.
A British departure from the EU, while still “extremely unlikely”, is no longer the unthinkable suggestion it once was. But crises could create their own impetus in the years ahead. For the Republic, the UK’s coming series of actions are crucial, yet few on either side are sure of the full consequences, bar a consensus that it is a source of instability the Republic could do without.
Cameron does not want to quit the EU – a view still shared by most of the Conservative Party’s grassroots, however reluctantly – but he wants to renegotiate membership, bringing back to Westminster powers now pooled in Brussels. It won’t be easy.
Conservative MPs in 2012 have, if anything, a greater antipathy towards the EU than their predecessors; partly because those in marginal seats are terrified about losing votes to the UK Independence Party, the anti-EU group led by Nigel Farage.
Equally, Cameron’s temporary halo – conferred by his backbenchers after he vetoed last December’s EU fiscal treaty talks – has faded. Most importantly, it has convinced them vetoes, or the threat of vetoes, are now worthless because the rest will just go ahead on their own.
Chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne favours a referendum pledge for the 2015 election – the only question to be decided, according to some, is the sequence of events: a referendum to seek a mandate, or one on the outcome of a negotiation already held. The former has greater political strategy behind it, since EU countries frustrated with London, such as Germany, may be willing to pay some price to keep the UK onboard.
The danger in London is of a bidding war. Labour, which has always had a Eurosceptic wing, albeit a quieter one, is toying with offering its own post-2015 referendum pledge – even if party leader Ed Miliband is not yet convinced. Party politics is the dominant motivation, a point illustrated by the unity between traditionally jaundiced Labour MPs and the likes of Peter Mandelson, whose principal aim is to cause havoc within the Conservatives.
Meanwhile, there is a possibility rumours that Labour were on the point of offering a pledge could provoke unilateral action by the Conservatives, even if Cameron had reached the opinion by then that he needed to hedge his bets.