This week France and Germany celebrated the 50th anniversary of their reconciliation after a century of war and carnage. Britain, which shed much blood to make peace possible, signalled that it didn’t want to retain its place in the triumvirate shaping the destiny of Europe. David Cameron prefers us to have a role yapping ineffectively on the sidelines.
The Prime Minister knows that he has unleashed a process that could do the most profound damage to Britain’s economy. He’s done it to appease his party that has become obsessed with the issue. It will do him no good. If he wins the next election, he will attempt to undertake a major renegotiation of our membership terms. He will substantially fail despite the German Chancellor’s conciliatory tone at the moment. However Cameron will pretend that the scraps that he gets are a good enough reason to vote yes in the referendum. He will be ridiculed by UKIP and half the Tory Party who will campaign manically for their once in a lifetime chance of getting a no vote. They will be egged on by the Murdoch press and I fear the British people will vote to come out.
Long before 2018 and the start of the vast and messy task of disentangling ourselves from the EU, the damage will already be done. Indeed it is probably starting today. In some boardroom in Europe or Asia a company will be putting on hold a long term decision to invest in or trade with Britain. They will be doing this because there is total uncertainty about what Britain’s business environment will be like by 2020, detached from Europe.
Great uncertainty surrounds Cameron’s shopping list but we can get a hint from looking at the demands of the influential Tory “Fresh Start” group. It includes the directives on working time, temporary workers, transfer of undertakings, health and safety, rights to information, parental leave, employment protection for part time workers and equal pay.
There are two big problems with that list. Firstly they are at the heart of the Single Market. They ensure that all members of the EU compete fairly. There is not a cat in hell’s chance that our partners are going to allow us to employ cheap labour on short term contracts to gain an advantage for British goods.
The second problem is this. Do you want Britain to return to a situation where hospital doctors work a hundred hours a week, you lose your job when one firm takes over another, where corners are cut on health and safety, where parental leave may be cut, where bosses are free to discriminate against women over pay and part time workers are exploited?
That’s often what is meant when people vaguely talk about “Brussels red tape”. What they really want is to return to the days when workers could be rampantly exploited. They cry that employers are reluctant to take on staff because of all this “red tape”. Really? Have you noticed this week’s employment figures?
Bosses seem to have weathered the recession and lived “the red tape” without unemployment going over three million.
I am not misty eyed about Europe. There is a lot that needs changing in the Common Agricultural Policy, fishing quotas, and strengthening the European Parliament. If Cameron wants to be really macho he should get tough on the ridiculous nonsense of the MEP s traipsing off to Strasbourg once a month.
The Tory Party will go quiet for a while on Europe, but UKIP will still offer the clearer path to leaving. The Lib Dems have offered an in/out referendum in the past but I can’t see them backing Cameron’s approach.
Labour worry me deeply on this issue. The pressure on Ed Miliband to offer an in/out referendum in 2015 will be intense. The confusion this week after Cameron’s speech was not good. The party should have the courage to say that while it will constantly look for reform, it would only offer a referendum if it was proposed to transfer new powers to Brussels. That legislation is already on the statute book.
It is clear David Cameron knows we need to stay in the EU but he is attempting to appease people who will never be satisfied until we are out.
It would now be best for Labour to win the next election and for the Tory Party to reform itself in opposition. The Eurosecpticshould join UKIP and the rest form a modern Conservative Party prepared to govern Britain playing its full part in the EU and eventually the Euro zone too.