The British prime minister, David Cameron, made an important speech this morning here in Britain. Important because it commits his party the Conservative Party, to including the promise of an “In/Out” Referendum over British membership of the European Union after he has attempted to negotiate a new treaty with his European partners that would allow Britain a place at Europe’s top table without it having to accept any of the federalist ties that Germany, in particular, sees as the only practical way forward for a strong and united Europe.
This was an important speech because it starts a proper debate here in Britain about what the nation actually wants from its relationship with Europe and that includes forcing the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, and the opposition party, Labour, still shy on this issue, to tell the nation their position over a referendum too. The Conservative referendum would happen midway through a hypothetical Conservative second term so Europe, finally, will become an honest subject for debate and a deciding factor at the next general election. For decades the Conservatives have been divided over Europe and have sought desperately, at general elections to hide the differences that brought down their last Prime Minister, John Major.
The expansion of Europe’s membership, the Euro crisis and the divergence of opinion of European federalism means that there has to be negotiations over the European Union’s future so this is not a shock horror moment even if, like me, you believe that Britain’s place is at the centre of Europe. We must all accept that there are negotiations that need to be held with a stronger Europe as the possible outcome. The horror will only come if British democracy gets railroaded into voting out of old-fashioned jingoism thinking that Britain can somehow revive its Empire and rule the waves again or that anyone would ever want that even.
This ‘In/Out” referendum will ask British voters to decide if they want to remain in the European Union as it would be after David Cameron’s negotiations on British “interests” so in fact, the general election will also be an “In/Out” one too. If the referendum becomes a part of the Conservative manifesto, then the other parties will have to make their position clear too. If, as David Cameron said this morning, Britain’s place is in the Union, that it will be stronger in the European Union but his negotiations over British “interests” fail then his party will be leading the nation out of the Union against the instincts of Mr Cameron himself. The electorate, at the next General Election, should remember how ineffectual David Cameron has been so far in European negotiations and how, until now, he has left Britain as an also ran at one of the most critical periods in European economic history. It is up to the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrat Party to show at that election that Britain’s future in Europe will not be best served by the Conservatives, a party with a majority of anti-Europeans who are still holding a gun to their leader’s not always very steady head.
So, it will be an election over whether Britain wants David Cameron “In” or “Out.”