Published on 24 September 2015
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- The Reformer Blog
29 September 2015
This article was written in advance of an event Reform is holding with TheCityUK at the Labour conference 2015.
The Conservative policy on Europe – “reform, renegotiation and referendum” – as David Cameron put it to the House of Commons in June is, in my view, a reckless gamble with the UK’s future.
First, a ‘No’ vote would threaten Britain’s economic recovery, creating huge investment uncertainty for businesses, unless and until Britain was able to negotiate new terms of access to the single market, which remains by far our largest market. This is no simple matter and the anti- Europeans are wilfully unclear and irresponsible about what they believe the real alternative to European Union (EU) membership is.
The idea that Britain can vote to withdraw and still enjoy ‘free trade’, without fully accepting EU rules, including the free movement of labour, and continuing to contribute to the EU budget, is for the birds.
Secondly, Britain’s position in the modern world is highly dependent on our EU membership. Churchill’s vision of Britain at the centre of three circles – the Commonwealth, the Atlantic Alliance and Europe – only remains relevant to the extent that we are perceived as playing a key role in the EU. On issues as diverse as migration and refugee crises, trade and economic development of poor nations, climate change and energy security, relations with Russia, Iran and the Middle East: we only matter because we are members of the EU, and the extent to which the EU can make itself matter. I would like the EU to matter a lot more, but we constrain that potential by our constant angst about whether we want to remain part of it.
Thirdly, a ‘No’ vote would in all likelihood trigger the breakup of the UK, giving the Scottish National Party the perfect excuse to demand another referendum on independence. It would also destabilise the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland with untold consequences.
So a ‘No’ vote in the referendum risks the recovery, our influence in the world, and the unity of the UK itself.
Any referendum presents unpredictable political risks, but people are underestimating them, despite the fact that opinion polls at present suggest a comfortable majority for remaining members. Whatever happens I will campaign to keep Britain in the EU. But David Cameron’s strategy to achieve this goal is badly flawed. He is right that the EU needs a fundamental rethink, particularly as the Eurozone integrates as the only way of tackling the single currency’s flaws, and these necessary changes raise big issues as to the relationship with non-Euro members.
But these great issues to do with the future of Europe will not be resolved on Cameron’s political timetable. So the reform and renegotiation he seeks is likely to end up as something of a superficial public relations exercise. Meanwhile, because he has bought into the idea of renegotiation’ he is not campaigning with all guns blazing for the vital national interest of retaining our EU membership. I wish him well, but I fear the worst.
Lord Liddle, Shadow Spokesperson for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs