In this morning’s Independent, a collection of Establishment names have broken cover and lobbied David Cameron to abandon his pledge to hold an EU referendum by the end of 2017. In a letter, whose signatories include former Tory Ministers, the CBI and Peter Mandelson, they bizarrely claim that the lesson from the Scottish referendum is that people should not be given a vote on the EU, for fear of creating ‘uncertainty’.
The motivation of many of the signatories’ opposition to a referendum should not come as a surprise. Many are either former employees of the European Union or have in the past urged the UK to join the Euro – a currency that has doomed many of Europe’s economies to stagnation and crippling youth unemployment. They were wrong then, they are wrong now, and their justifications for denying the people a vote are spurious.
The in-at-all-costs brigade appear willing to only pay lip service to the idea of EU reform. Only a referendum can deliver a better deal and they know it. Try telling Scotland you don't get anything back if people think you are serious about the alternative to membership of a political union. The EU faces huge problems such as having a shrinking share of world GDP, an ageing population and being dogged by wasteful spending. It has lurched from one crisis to another and is overshadowed by a democratic deficit that has seen power in Brussels increase while voter participation has plummeted. In this light, the idea that the Prime Minister should simply discard our best hope for reform while casually breaking a promise to voters is both ludicrous and condescending. No wonder voters are angry with the ‘political elite’.
The fact that that a number of Conservatives politicians have signed this letter is ironic. Many predicted any Tory split on Cameron’s EU referendum pledge to come from the Eurosceptic side, but it is the Europhiles who have broken party unity. This of course is playing into Ed Miliband’s hands, who made a big pitch to his party faithful on Tuesday about not holding an EU referendum and accusing the PM of having ‘one hand on the exit door’.
It is particularly disappointing to see Sir Mike Rake, in his role as President of the CBI, signing up to calls to abandon an EU referendum. The CBI made some positive noises about EU reform when David Cameron made his Bloomberg speech which called for renegotiation backed up by an EU referendum. Yet this support for reform seems rather hollow as the CBI’s true position has become apparent. It has gone from wanting to work with the PM to get the best deal, to suggesting that an EU referendum is a constitutional issue for the Government to decide, to now its President actively opposing giving voters a say. Given that independent polls show that business leaders overwhelmingly support a referendum (including CBI members), I’m sure many ordinary CBI members will be disappointed by this failure to back our best hope of securing a better deal for the UK. It’s reminiscent of how the CBI leadership misrepresented their views on the Euro, until Business for Sterling highlighted how out of step they were with both their members and the business community.
Ultimately, we know that the signatories of this letter feel that Britain would be better off staying in the EU, but they also appear content with the status quo. Abandoning a referendum would mean abandoning any chance of serious reform. Sadly too many supporters of a future ‘In’ campaign don’t want to win an EU referendum, they simply want to avoid the inconvenience of troubling voters for their thoughts by ever even having one. It’s the Establishment at its worst.
Matthew Elliott is the Chief Executive of Business for Britain.