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.
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.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 26 January 2013