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David Cameron’s Europe speech: The Spectator’s verdict

23 January 2013

Just for Coffee House readers, here is a sneak preview of the leading article from this week’s Spectator. Download our iPad and iPhone app to read the rest of the magazine first thing tomorrow. 

It was almost worth the wait. The substance of David Cameron’s speech on Europe was disclosed in this magazine a fortnight ago, but his delivery was excellent. He offered a clear-headed and almost touchingly optimistic vision of the type of union that the British public would find acceptable: one based on free trade, not bureaucratic diktat. One where power can flow back to countries, not be leached from them. And one founded on genuine popular consent, rather than broken promises and dodged referenda. Such a settlement would be nothing more than what the British signed up to when last consulted.

The Prime Minister based his speech on the most important point: that the Europe question is no longer about political factions. It is about the people. As he said, there is much discontent about the European Union, vividly expressed now and again on the streets of Athens and Rome. But when the European Commission conducted the world’s largest opinion poll two months ago to ask people if they would be better off out of the EU, no one showed more appetite than the British. There is a limit to how long a democracy can be kept in a union against its people’s will, so any Prime Minister would have to act.

The Euro-fanatics love to explain this in terms of xenophobia or political obsessions, and say there will always be grumbles from swivel-eyed Tories or men drinking in pubs with the St George’s flag outside, that both want the world to go away. This completely mistakes the nature of this country. It is precisely because our horizons are global — not just continental — that Britain has far less fear of life outside the EU. We have never confused independence with isolation, nor have we ever felt the need for the EU to speak for us on the world stage. As a nation, we stand tall enough on our own.

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From now on, the Prime Minister’s negotiating will be immeasurably strengthened because the EU knows that it will not be negotiating with a politician who could be bought off — as Tony Blair was so often — by vague promises of reform. Every directive passed, every deal at every summit, will now have to meet with the approval of the British public, when the big vote comes. Given how unimpressed we are in general, this will focus minds in Brussels.

That said, Cameron’s speech raised as many questions as it answered. As James Forsyth explained earlier this month, he immediately ruled out the Norwegian and Swiss options. It’s not quite clear why: Norway has hardly shivered in the economic wilderness for the past few decades. Both control their own borders. It is true, as he said, that the Swiss must negotiate access to the European Single Market sector by sector. But Switzerland is lucky enough to negotiate its own trade deals with the rest of the world, and now exports more to China than Britain does — not bad for a country a quarter of our economic size.

The Prime Minister says he wants an end to ‘ever closer union’ and a more flexible European Union. But this is hardly a novel position and we have few details beyond that. We also know that Mr Cameron would like Britain to stay in, if possible. But we don’t know yet what would make him walk away. It is, at least, clear that a failure to enter renegotiation talks with Britain would be a sign — or, rather, confirmation— that the European Union has left Britain.

The rest of Cameron’s European strategy — the reforms he wants for the continent — we can ignore. He is precisely right to say that the EU needs to be reformed for the sake of the European Union, which is now making its constituent nations poorer and less free. Britain wants a Europe of ‘diversity’, as he says, yet the hierarchy in Brussels is obsessed with stamping this out. Its latest offering is a paper on how newspapers ought to be regulated. As the European debt crisis intensifies, and more German savings are used to bail out Spanish and Greek debts, the governments of continental Europe will be tied further together by debtors’ bonds.

Mr Cameron has always dropped hints that he is secretly more Eurosceptic than it would be prudent to admit, but he has revised this on reflection. His heartfelt pledge to campaign ‘body and soul’ for a ‘yes’ verdict shows more enthusiasm than most of his MPs would muster. The new Treasury minister, Sajid Javid, speaks for the majority when he says on page 20 that he would be happy to consider Britain’s future outside the EU. So would most Brits. Javid is the son of a Pakistani bus driver who has grown up knowing that the British dream is a global one.

The promise of a referendum — which will be non-negotiable should the Tories find themselves in coalition again — means that it no longer matters so much where Cameron draws his red lines. He will have a powerful and popular proposition to put before voters at the next election: that, if he is returned to No. 10, the question of British sovereignty will finally be decided by the British people. It now falls to the hierarchy of the European Union to give us their best offer.

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  • Victor Southern

    The issue has become blindingly clear. Vote Conservative in 2015 and you may very well get the referendum. It is not relevant at that time who will campaign for In and who for Out – you will get a vote on the EU.

    Any other vote cast in 2015 makes a referendum more distant and probably destined never to be held.

    What is certain is that a vote for UKIP is a vote to ensure no referendum – on a par with turkeys voting for Xmas.

  • Brian Mooney

    Not convinced. Apart from the Czechs and Dutch, all the other EU leaders are in European People’s Party federalist grouping or Euro-socialists of some hue. There was a high level denial that the Dutch are amenable to powers being given back.

    Much work is going into a belated review of ‘competences’ sector by sector. But this doesn’t mean we can take powers back. The acquis communautaire is hard-wired into the European legal order and EU institutions obliged to work for ever closer political and economic union, the whole purpose of the EU. That includes the European Council [heads of government] that revises the membership treaty.

    Worse still, having ‘competence’ classed as national doesn’t stop the EU interfering in that area, and it can legislate over us or limit how we can act. The EU sees ‘competence’ as ‘responsibility’ rather than unfettered power for its members.
    This is all key, as EU reformists depend on the use of Lisbon Treaty Article 48 on ‘competences’ for ‘bringing back powers’ [sic]. Truth will out eventually, and the debate will become one of In, and committed to political union, or Out, and how to successfully deal with the EU as an independent country.

  • Boudicca_Icenii

    You talk about the fact that the Swiss option requires negotiation issue by issue …. but completely ignore the fact that ONCE AGAIN Cameron lied about the Norway option and ‘Government by Fax.’
    Dr North at EU Referendum.Com has completely debunked the lie – and it is a blatent lie – that Norway has no say in devising and implementing EU regulations. It does: it is consulted in advance and sits on committees during the planning stage. If it doesn’t wish to implement any directives in its internal market, it can VETO them.
    Not one of the MSM ever challenges Cameron on this basic fact and blatent lie. We do not need to be in the EU to be in the single market.

  • Walter Ellis

    Not everyone who supports the European Union is a “Euro-fanatic”.

    • Rhoda Klapp2

      No, Walter, but you are.

    • ButcombeMan

      I beg to differ, adherence to the EU project in anything like the current form and “ever closer union” is an act of mindlessness, the EU and the Euro just do not work, cannot work. Ever, as currently constructed.

      Belief in it or any of it, is despite logical thought process not because of.

      It is a belief quasi religious in form. It is a great madness and the history books will say so in 50 years.

      So Cameron is playing for time, pretending to address the UK population but really addressing the Germans as the only country, other than the Uk, able to lead out of this mess.

  • SmithersJones2013

    This puts an interesting twist on things:

    David Cameron’s referendum may never be necessary

  • TheBoilingFrog

    “One where power can flow back to countries, not be leached from them”.

    Erm….”Determined to lay the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”
    (Treaty of Rome 1957)

    Erm…”This Treaty marks a new stage in the process of creating an ever closer union…”
    (Maastricht Treaty 1992)

  • Dracula

    Thank you for the line Jazz6o6 – Hitchens comments are excellent and sadly true

  • Its_not_craig

    For anyone to claim that the Speech has strengthened Cameron’s position is frankly, bonkers.

    Dave’s many media sycophants have been on a bed-wettingly excited dance today, finding increasingly bizarre hyperbole to describe what amounts to nothing but a long line of Ifs.

    If I get elected

    If I get a majority
    If I negotiate changes
    If I bring them to the British people
    If you are stupid enough to be taken in by this.

    Give it 3 months. Maybe 6. The electorate care little now for Europe. Imagine how they’ll feel in 6 months time if we have a 3rd or even 4th recession. When the military breaks under the strain. When High Streets are boarded up.

    No neutral polling asserts that the British people want to leave the EU. IPSOS Mori proved that this morning. Why would they vote Cameron a majority? This whole fantasy is based on a Eurosceptic wet dream (and by the way, before the Trolls kick in – I would vote to leave the EU tomorrow) that everyone in Britain thinks the same way as we do.

    And the EU will somehow break the habit of a lifetime and allow an individual Nation to negotiate separate terms. “Focus minds in Brussels”? Really, who writes this schoolboy nonsense? The only focus will be on ignoring us because we’re prevaricating the formation of their SuperState club. Be honest. If Cameron doesn’t get a majority (still very, very unlikely) he’s consigned us to an EU we’ll be stuck in that will treat us even more like unruly children.

    Utter madness. Utter, utter madness.

    • jazz6o6

      Well said. Anyway who knows if the EU will survive another 5 years. If youth unemployment in the PIIGS stays at current levels it won’t.

    • MirthaTidville

      The minds in Brussels will be focused, largely on the £50 million per day we give them to waste.They know that cant easily be replaced and whatever you might think money talks. Glad to hear you want out, so do millions of British, at the moment getting out registers very high on their richter scale….dont believe the polls they are skewed at the best of times.

  • Curnonsky

    Would it be completely unreasonable to suspect that all this is really about the threat of UKIP and the next election? And that once the election passes so, too, shall this business about renegotiation, repatriation, referendum and so on?

    • telemachus

      On the contrary this focuses on the more authentic and believable position of Farage

    • LondonStatto

      UKIP’s strong opinion poll position has probably forced the matter, but think back to pre-Lisbon (before Labour and their useful idiots started lying about the Tories’ position):

      At the time the Tory position was clear: they did not believe in ratifying Lisbon without a referendum. If once they came to power Labour had already ratified and hence a referendum was rendered pointless, the line was “we will not let matters rest there”.

      And so they aren’t.

      • dalai guevara

        So what was the ‘cast iron’ comment all about then? Telling the truth?

    • Nicholas chuzzlewit

      In answer to your question, I would say it is slightly unreasonable. I have no doubt that party politics is a considerable influence here but then so it is whatever the question be it Welfare, Immigration, Health etc etc. Also, I suspect that when considering life or career altering decisions, most of us consider a variety of motives and reasons (good and bad). It thus seems seems reasonable to extend the same decision making privileges to Cameron as we extend to ourselves. I accept that his decisions tend to have a wider impact than most of ours but the key thing about this issue is not purity of motive. I also believe that it is reasonable to wait until we know the dimensions and shape of what we will be voting for or against rather than sucumbing to current prejudices (in my case immediate departure from the EU).
      That said, I have doubts about our abilities to extract significant concessions from our european bretheren but it also seems reasonable to try. It was interesting to hear Angela Merkel pouring emolient words into the debate so quickly. Germany has its own agenda and putting up with a spendthrift and unreformed France led by a kind of Gallic Gordon Brown without a British shield is probably not part of that agenda. Incidentally, I think Germany uses us rather skillfully in that regard.
      All in all, I favour Cameron’s stance as we will, in theory at least, get to excercise a vote. It is certainly superior to the stance of Clegg and Milliband who seem happy with the status quo and content themselves with lobbing bricks at Cameron.

      • global city

        Both Clegg and Miliband see themselves as internationalists, in the intelectual tradition of European leftist politics. they are both avid supporters of the EU, on principle, because it transcends all those petty nationalist/populist emotions that limit human development…er, according to them.

  • Francesca Montemaggi

    How unambitious can Britain be? Inside the EU (and eurozone), it could lead, outside it’ll be irrelevant. The piece lacks any grasp of geopolitics and economics. Time to adjust to the multipolar world.

    • teledu

      Do me a favour Francesca. The only thing the EU leads in is bureaucracy, fraud, self-aggrandisement and some misguided sense that more regulation and less democracy should not ever be questioned by the great unwashed. .

    • Noa

      As opposed to your bi-polar view.

  • teledu

    I hope the 2014 European Parliamentar yelections show overwhelming support for UKIP., That might just give Cameron the message that the masses can’t abide the political classes’ adoration of the EU and that any backing-down to EU refusal to negotiate will be punished at the ballot box in 2015.

  • jazz6o6

    Spectator, You should be ashamed of this piece.

    For everyone else an intelligent take on Cameron’s speech can be found from here from Peter Hitchens.

  • John Steadman

    As was suggested on BBC today, Cameron will use possible concessions on fishing to keep Lowestoft happy, and use this as a reason to vote for continued membership in the promised (and how far do we rate Cameron’s promises?) refrerendum.
    Cameron does not want to leave the EU and he will every excuse to secure this aim. If I had to waste my time voting, I would vote UKIP.

  • IanH

    Well said, now if only you’d realise that most of the planet uses non Apple devices I might re-subscribe.

    I’ve been listening to Radio 5 Live today (for my sins), how amusing has their coverage been as they bring on people they hope would be anti Cameron, only to be knocked back.

    • Fraser Nelson

      IanH – you mean Android?

      • Charlie

        Fraser – I enjoyed the first few episodes on Podkicker on Android. Disappointed (and gave up) when it switched to iTunes. Even a direct download mp3 would be a workable compromise.

  • Daniel Maris

    Some key issues missing I feel:

    1. UKIP. The PM has gifted them the EU being in the headlines for the next 4-5 years even outside EU open season (the EU elections).

    2. Free trade. We are at the end of the free trade era – the era when free trade was good for us and Europe. I see only bad times ahead if we stick to the free trade dogma: China, India, Mexico, Turkey and Brazil won’t be playing cricket – they will be “accessing all areas”, not just manufacturing yellow plastic ducks.

    • HooksLaw

      The only point to UKIP now is to gift labour the next election.

      You are a fool if you think protectionism is going to help us.

      • jazz6o6

        Independence isn’t the same as protectionism or is that point too subtle for you?

      • SmithersJones2013

        .Of course Cameron’s defeat will have nothing to do with the 10-15 million voters who will vote Labour and Libdem or the reality that Cameron through rushing headlong into the Coalition did a great deal to unify them under Miliband’s leadership, it will be solely down to the 1-2 million UKIP voters voting for the only party of any size that support EU withdrawal.

        Of course given that UKIP are the only party of any size offering to support the withdrawal option currently they probably have far more ‘point’ than any of the establishment parties individually. After all if UKIP did not exist there would really be no point having a referendum at all given the pro-european consensus in Westminster.

        Anyway there’s nothing like getting your excuses in early even if they do sound bitter and twisted. Its as if you are suffering early onset grief (stage two ~ anger) and think the Tories are going to lose (I agree). I do hope that you can long continue being bitter and twisted about UKIP because if you are that means they are still a thorn in the side of at least one of the pro-European parties.

    • jazz6o6

      There is no such thing as ‘free trade’. Never has been and never will be.

      • the viceroy’s gin

        It’s sad how that truism is so little embraced. They should hammer those 2 sentences into a branding iron, and sear it into every politician’s forehead, so they’d all be able to see it wherever they go.

  • Dimoto

    Don’t agree that “reform of the EU” can be ignored.

    Cameron’s position would be strengthened if he went with a list of reform proposals attractive to the northern tier, rather than just a list of demands for opt-outs.

    For example:

    1) Charge v Rompuy and Barroso with the task of ensuring that the EU passes it’s audit in the current year – on pain of their jobs. These two overpaid apparatchiks should be made to earn their lavish emoluments, instead of just swanning about without responsibilities, making speeches.

    2) Propose a new ruling that no EU official or parliamentarian should earn more than the equivalent rank in one of the four major EU economies.

    3) Propose the setting up of a permanent EU anti-corruption unit with full powers.

    • Tom Tom

      “ensuring that the EU passes it’s audit in the current year – on pain of
      their jobs.” That is hardly possible unless National Budgets are put under EU control… should look at what this “Audit” entails….it involves the Funds administered by NATIONAL Governments – if you want Barroso responsible for the full EU Budget you will have to have one unitary Economic Government for the EU

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