John Major’s speech in Berlin yesterday was aimed at a European audience, but his warning that Britain has a just under 50% chance of quitting the EU still gets plenty of pick-up in the British press this morning. The former Prime Minister hasn’t always helped Downing Street out in his interventions over the past few years, but Number 10 did work with Major on this speech.
His arguments are beautifully-written and striking because they come from a pro-European former leader. Major is not someone who European leaders will discount as a raving eurosceptic, and therefore his stark warning about the chances of Britain leaving should be taken seriously. He said:
‘I put the chance of exit at just under 50%. But if the negotiations go badly that percentage will rise. Conversely, with genuine reform, it will fall. I ask our European partners to realise we are close to a breach that is in no-one’s interest. Britain’s frustration is no game. It is not a political ploy to gain advantages and concessions from our partners. There is a very real risk of separation that could damage the future of the United Kingdom – and Europe as a whole.’
Major did call on David Cameron to appoint someone as a full-time negotiator before the 2017 referendum, and many think this a jolly good idea. His speech is still far from the role that Major envisaged, but his warnings are helpful to David Cameron as he tries to get a hearing in Europe. Major was particularly convincing on the subject of immigration, saying he hated having to make an argument for restrictions on movement:
‘I hate having to make this argument. I hate it. As a boy, I was brought up among immigrants in South London.