The wait is over. David Cameron has made his big speech on Europe, perhaps the biggest of his premiership. And now the big wait begins.
What his speech promises is big on “ifs” (he even admitted it in the questions afterwards.) If he wins the next General Election, he will try to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the European Union. If he secures the deal he wants, he will argue for a yes vote in the in-out referendum. If he doesn’t get the deal he wants, we don’t know what he’ll do, not even whether there will still be a referendum. And Cameron’s biggest gamble of all is that, having promised some sort of referendum, after some sort of renegotiation, at some time in the future, he will now be able to sideline the eurosceptics of UKIP and in his own party, stop “banging on about Europe” as he said in Opposition, and concentrate on what opinion polls show the British public really do care about – jobs, housing, health and prices. As if!
Pity the coalition of development charities who chose today to launch their campaign on global hunger, called “If…”
It’s clear that, given the first big “if”, very few other European leaders will bother to start considering the issue seriously until they find out whether David Cameron wins the next General Election. And once he’s won, given his professed desire to argue for a “yes” vote in the referendum, his negotiating position will be anything but strong (and he will need to carry out those negotiations and fit in the referendum at a heck of a rush.) Already, ardent Europhobes and the generally sceptical are pointing at the vagueness of his tests and suggesting that (as did Wilson in 1974), success in renegotiation will be a bar set exceedingly low. Other European leaders are likely to take the view that the gun he’s just cocked is pointed straight at his own head, rather than theirs.
In terms of what he wants to renegotiate, there is yet more uncertainty. Clearly many of his own supporters are hugely exercised about the Working Time Directive and other employment regulations (and many employers are short-sighted enough to take the deregulation and run, without worrying that if deregulation’s so great, how come the world’s richest economies like Germany and Scandinavia are so highly regulated?) He was quite vague in his speech although he did mention Brussels deciding on doctors’ hours (actually, the UK Government of the time did get to vote on the issue and even took it to the European Court of Justice - they lost in both cases!)
Once it is explained what these employment rights cover (as they would be if they become the focus of popular attention such as in the run up to a General Election and then a possible referendum), they are actually quite popular with voters – paid holidays, equal pay, safety at work – and much more flexible than swivel-eyed europhobes maintain. Unions in Britain – and in the rest of Europe – would resist renegotiating Britain’s adherence to common employment laws tooth and nail. Of other issues, policing is one of the most obvious cases for trans-national co-operation. Even free movement is a reciprocal benefit, despite the media focus on immigration rather than French and Spanish retirement homes, working and studying abroad.
And all the time, transnational companies will be weighing the costs and benefits of investing in a country which may or may not be about to leave the biggest, richest internal market on the planet. The next four years could see thousands of investment decisions where companies play safe and relocate to the European core. It may well be the case, as eurosceptics argue, that Britain could end up still trading freely with the continent after a referendum. But if you were an investor choosing whether to pour millions into a new factory, would you take the risk? And electorally, big business might even decide that a Labour Party committed to staying in the EU, while still seeking reforms, would be a better place to put their political contributions ahead of the 2015 election, reversing the funding advantage Cameron’s Conservatives had over Brown’s Labour in 2010.
So, by pledging an in/out referendum on renegotiated membership terms in the event of a Conservative majority in 2015, the Prime Minister may not have played the eurosceptic, UKIP-dishing master stroke he thinks he has. He may, at a stroke, have made all three outcomes less likely after all.