A pattern is fast emerging amongst those politicians, particularly within the Eurosceptic camp, who appear to continually sit on the fence when it comes to backing an EU referendum. Conservative ministers have consistently dangled the possibility of exacting a price for Britain’s agreement to any eurozone crisis-induced treaty change, keeping some Eurosceptic Tories assuaged enough to hold back from going down the referendum route. Cameron himself has intimated (with deft and carefully-chosen words) that there are indeed options to consider, telling the Parliamentary Liaison Committee last month:
“Britain should think carefully about how we maximize our national interest if that were to come about. When there is a treaty change, you have an opportunity to put forward what you want in your country’s national interest. I’ve done that once already, I’d do it again in the future.”
One should note that when the PM talks about having already “put forward what is in the UK’s national interest”, he is referring to being part of a group of Member-States who rejected MEPs’ proposed EU budget increase, returning it to a level he coincidentally opposed to begin with.
It is this indeterminate innuendo and insinuation that contrives to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. Vague commitments about “defending British national interest” in times of ‘opportunity’ against broader EU ambitions continue to suffice for some Eurosceptics. For others, it tells them all they need to know, providing the impetus upon which to call for a straight referendum instead.
Certainly Tory MP Dominic Raab seems to keep the faith that upcoming treaty change will present such an undeniable ‘opportunity’, a last chance even, to work the repatriation or renegotiation angle at Brussels’ top table. As he told a fringe event at the Conservative conference, “there is an a la carte menu of options on the table with which the Government can to step up to the plate to defend Britain’s national interest, and I believe they have never been more serious about it than they are now”. Raab spelt out that he believes if this one last chance at such renegotiation fails, this will then “pave the way for an irresistible demand for a referendum”.
The question is, just what do these politicians mean when it comes to ‘renegotiation’? The majority of the public understand this to mean a repatriation of powers from Brussels back to Westminster. The reality, certainly the language employed thus far, is less clear. Posturing from “practical Eurosceptic” ministers consists of endless platitudes about “mulling looser ties with the EU”, “protecting our national interest(s)” and “redefining our EU relationship”, with little clarity as to what this means in concrete workable terms. That adds a heavily subjective dimension, opening it up to individual interpretation while leaving sufficient room for officials to cover their own tracks by stopping short of committing to any specifics. The question then becomes, if not repatriation, what is left to renegotiate?
All this speculation and uncertainty, mixed with a dash of Eurosceptic pandering, is what keeps many MPs who would otherwise go for the referendum option toeing the party line. Hope remains for some Conservatives that even with Lib Dems (the only party whose manifesto actually mentioned an In/Out referendum) in coalition, repatriation might somehow work its way back onto the agenda during this Parliament. The PM and his Foreign Secretary do well to give interviews here and there approaching this with a “maybe but not right now” line; just enough to dissuade their MPs from going down the referendum route. That works remarkably well, except for when the tough questions are asked.
During the Conservative Party Conference, BBC presenter Andrew Neil went down that tough line of questioning with Michael Fallon – the result should leave no room for doubt or uncertainty. In this clip, the Tory MP and Deputy Party Chairman is forced to explicitly admit that the party will not, irrespective of any treaty change, even look at repatriating powers again until it is time for a new manifesto and general election. Contrast this with George Osborne’s remarks during yesterday’s statement on the eurozone crisis. Responding to veteran Eurosceptic MP Bill Cash, the Chancellor -who has said he expects treaty change on euro area fiscal integration within the next 1 to 2 years- opined that “if a future treaty should arise, as it may well do, we will argue the case for bringing back certain powers to this country”.
Perhaps, cleverly, his comments hinge on the sublime difference between a “future treaty” and “treaty change”. But the fudging of this issue is allowing many Eurosceptic Tories to cling to hope that repatriation-cum-renegotiation WILL happen, thereby negating the need for a referendum…for now. Perhaps then, Dominic Raab is right: the Conservative Party -certainly the Conservative Party in Government- is at a crossroads. Perhaps this is its final chance to prove its ostensibly Eurosceptic colours and credentials by using a looming ‘opportunity’ to “get something back for Britain”. The rest have seen through the act and realise it is way past due for the people to decide instead of the ambivalent political class.