So David Cameron will let it rest there after all. And in fairness to him, he can do nothing else. Thanks to the Blair/Brown stitch up, Britain has no options left. It never did. Cameron knows that and today’s speech was just a longwinded way of saying it. He is right not to promise what he calls a “made-up referendum”, that would accomplish nothing other then vent rage. But nor should he kid us all that he is going to renegotiate some powers back from Brussels. That would need the unanimous approval of all other member states, and it would never be granted. If Britain were to repatriate powers, then who would ask next? Where would it stop? The post-Lisbon EU is more powerful, bullying (as we saw with Ireland and Czechs) and it will refuse any request Cameron makes.
Not that he will make it very loudly. The package he laid out today will scare precisely no one in Brussels. William Hague’s ‘European Policy Committee’ sounds like the sound of an issue being kicked into the long grass. I like the idea of ‘British guarantees’ that would be attached to the Croatian accession treaty – but, in reality, Britain is not going to play hardball and veto the Croats. We’re in favour of EU enlargement and Cameron would not keep the Croats out, unless he made a truly meaningless set of demands.
Cameron has promised a ‘never again’ guarantee that Britain will — like Ireland — have a referendum on any other major shift of powers to the EU, such as the adoption of a single currency. But the whole point of Lisbon is that it is a self-amending treaty: it will allow the EU to take on more powers without such referenda. There is, alas, no need for a ‘referendum lock’, much as I applaud the sentiment. I very much doubt anything the EU does will be frustrated by the parliamentary scrutiny he spoke about.
What the new Tory package amounts to is a promise to ask the EU very nicely if it will consider handing back a few powers over employment and justice. The answer will be ‘no’. Saying that he might hold a referendum over a wider package of guarantees will carry no weight. By ignoring the Dutch and French ‘no’ votes the EU has shown that it cares not a jot what the little people think. It is a project of the elites, for the elites.
Mr Cameron’s proposed Sovereignty Bill — declaring the primacy of English law over the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg — will also be meaningless unless it includes the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. At present, the Tories’ proposed Bill of Rights is a disingenuous decoy because it would be explicitly junior to Strasbourg (which yesterday ordered Italian schoolchildren not to wear crucifixes in class). If the Tories were serious about repatriating justice, they would declare the Bill of Rights the law of the land. You don’t need a constitutional court to do this. You simply need to declare that, by dint of the sovereignty of Westminster, the Bill of Rights is the ranking legal jurisdiction in the land. Had Cameron said so today, then I would know he was serious. I still hope.
This can be done. Thatcher wrought concessions from Brussels – not by threatening a referendum but by credibly threatening to remove the two things it values: power and wonga. So only one threat that would really terrify Brussels: a UK referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU at all. And in tomorrow’s magazine, The Spectator makes this point in its leading article.
The ‘in or out’ question is seen as an extreme position in Westminster, which shows just how out of touch our political class has become. Brussels’s own polling shows that less than a third of the British public consider our membership of the EU to be ‘a good thing’ — and this was last year when our net contribution to the EU was just £3.1 billion. Next year it will be £7.8 billion (due to the budget deal the would-be President Blair negotiated) and serious questions will be asked as to whether all these regulations are worth the money we pay for them. Recent EU research shows that just 37% think the benefits of EU membership outweigh the costs.
Cameron had no options today, and did the best he could in the circumstances. I suspect he will soon come to realise that he may not be interested in a fight with the EU, but it will be interested in a fight with him. Tying his hands in government. Frustrating legal changes he wants to make. The prospect of an ‘in our out’ referendum is the only stick worth wielding in Brussels. And it is powerful precisely because the democracy-dodging elite have a horrible feeling they know what the answer might be. But will Cameron approach the subject? I very much doubt it. So Brussels can sleep easy tonight. The prospect of a UK referendum on Lisbon – ie, the voice of the British public - used to haunt them. Good luck to them asking Britain to vote twice! But now, they can learn to love David Cameron. After today, it seems they will not have much trouble from a Conservative government after all.