Nice pledge, but will an EU referendum ever happen?

David Cameron did the right thing in calling for a referendum. But there's a long way to go before we actually get one

Was Cameron roaring, or squeaking?
The Commentator
On 23 January 2013 09:49

Towards the end of David Cameron’s speech on Britain’s relationship with the European Union, he said that he was under no “illusions” as to the scale of the task he faced in redefining that relationship and repatriating powers. One really wonders.

The people who run the EU are not known for their willingness to relinquish what they already control. Theirs is a kind of Eurocratic Brezhnev Doctrine: wherever the boot of Brussels has landed, there it shall forever remain. Expansion always trumps contraction.

So, in saying that we should give the Prime Minister a chance, we acknowledge that that approach represents a triumph for hope over experience. But at least we have been given a promise. In the first half of the next parliament, there will be a referendum giving the British people a clear choice: should we stay or should we go? About time too.

That said, and much as we applaud the proposal, there must be serious doubts over whether a referendum will actually happen. This is a pledge from the leader of a Conservative Party that, if opinion polls remain as they are, is unlikely to win a majority at the next election. If the Labour Party forms, or at least leads, the next government, will it give the British people their say? Not if the way it has been talking recently is any indication.

Mr. Cameron’s pledge therefore poses an enormously awkward question for the Eurosceptic 'Ukip' party, which has made inroads into British politics largely at the expense of the Conservatives. If Ukip goes head to head with Conservative candidates at the next election, the chances are that it will hand victory to Labour. And that would mean that they will not get the kind of “in-out” referendum that they, above all other British parties, have been demanding for so long.

Does Ukip leader Nigel Farage want to be remembered as the man who killed the chances of a British referendum on Europe? On the other hand, how could he sustain his party’s momentum if he agreed, in one form or other, to play along with the Tories with a view to securing that very referendum? Not an easy conundrum to resolve.

Turning from the political dynamics to the substance, Mr. Cameron’s speech was predictably thin. To be sure, he could plausibly argue that it is unwise to show your hand before you go into negotiations. But the British people have been served up with placatory platitudes on Europe for far too long. The Prime Minister may have bought some time, but not much of it.

He will not be able to go into the next elections with any hope of winning (or seeing off the Ukip challenge, which may amount to the same thing for him) unless he can produce real, and significant results.

Mr. Cameron had better get on the phone to Brussels, Paris and Berlin right away. And he had better hope that his counterparts across Europe are prepared to be reasonable and democratic in their approach.

But given that the French Foreign Ministry has wasted no time at all in already declaring the Prime Minister's speech to be "dangerous" and given all that we know about the disposition of most people involved with the European project, we just don't fancy his chances.

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