John Major backs in/out referendum - as strange outbreak on Tory unity on Europe continues
By Harry Phibbs
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There was an interesting speech given by Sir John Major yesterday, concerning the European Union. It was given to Chatham House - although in contrast to what I understood were "Chatham House rules" it has been published.
The headline from it is the support from Sir John for the holding of an in/out referendum on our EU membership.
Sir John said:
A short while ago, the prime minister offered the nation a referendum on whether to remain in the European Union – or leave it, and I believe he was right to do so.
As a general principle, I don’t like referenda in a parliamentary system. But this referendum could heal many old sores and have a cleansing effect on politics. It will be healthy to let the electorate re-endorse our membership, or pull us out altogether. At present, we are drifting towards – and possibly through – the European exit. We need a renegotiation – and a referendum endorsement of it, and if that is denied, the clamour for it will only grow.
While some supporters of EU membership talk of their view being held by the majority, Sir John acknowledged that were a referendum to take place now "some polls suggest electors may vote to leave."
Sir John said that some Tory MPs would be bound to favour withdrawal from the EU regardless of any renegotiation. That is true. However in his speech Sir John made it pretty clear that he would favour our continued membership - no matter how little was conceded to us.
He says he support for membership "doesn't mean the status quo is acceptable" but if he was forced to it is pretty clear that he would accept.
So Bill Cash would vote to come out regardless, Sir John and Ken Clarke would vote to stay in regardless.
David Cameron and most Tory MPs would genuinely only be able to decide after to seeing how good the negotiated offer was. Yet by offering an in/out referendum Mr Cameron has managed to unite the Conservative Party including the two extremes - represented by Mr Cash and Sir John.
The problem is it being presented as primarily a Party management issue - which is absurd. There is clearly rather more to it than that in resolving such a fundamental question.
Sir John said the tone of the negotiations was important:
If we enter them with the aggressive attitude of ‘give us our way or we quit’, we will fail.
We should not "bully." This misses the point that it will be a referendum. The tone won't need to be bullying. It can more a matter of pleading:
Look, we obviously are very keen to persuade our electorate that we remain members. But we would appreciate as much help as possible. I'm afraid that unless you can be a bit more flexiblle on these issues we are really going to struggle and then we would lose the referendum and have to come out altogeteher which, of course, none of us want.
So it is not really a question of the tone. They can just hand over the polling dat to the Eurocrats. If they want the UK to remain in the EU then are they willing to give back enough for this to politically viable?
What should we seek?
Sir John says:
The prime minister can probably deliver safeguards for the City, less regulation, less bureaucracy, no more social legislation, enhancement of the Single Market and more besides. Beyond that, there are many areas ripe for reform, including a full repeal of the Working Time Directive, which a number of countries in Europe would welcome. We should also focus on tackling the democratic deficit and giving real muscle to subsidiarity. And we should do that because reforms that help Europe will also help the United Kingdom.
Other European Union policies – CAP, fisheries, structural funds – are a constant frustration to the United Kingdom. But even if the prime minister were able to gain exemptions from these policies – does anyone imagine hard-pressed farmers and fishermen would welcome the loss of subsidy from Europe and not demand its replacement from the British Treasury? Does anyone assume for a second we would not need to replace the subsidies lost to poorer regions in our own country from our own resources?
Well if staying members of the EU would mean staying in the CAP and the CFP then it's lost my vote.
Where I thought Sir John was quite right was that we should get cracking on the renegotiating:
I believe therefore that he should appoint a lead negotiator who sits in the cabinet. And if the Liberal Democrats oppose such an appointment – which is possible, since they oppose a referendum – then the prime minister should over-rule them. On a matter of this national
importance, the tail must not wag the dog.
It is essential that this negotiator is seen as the prime minister’s personal emissary. He, or she, must visit and re-visit every European capital to explain our case, seek allies, set out our aims, and – crucially – emphasize the damage to the European Union as a whole if the negotiations fail and the referendum is lost.