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EU politics: the writing on the wall

Richard North, 10/12/2012  


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"I'm proud to be European", says Van Rompuy, picking up his ludicrous bauble in Oslo today. But, if he is entitled to that point of view, he has no right to impose it on anyone else. Nor indeed, in his acceptance speech, does Barroso have any right to speak on our behalf.

That much has most certainly percolated into the higher echelons of the British government, witness the absence of David Cameron from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Instead, in a remarkable gesture of contempt, the tarnished europhile Nick Clegg has been sent, ostensibly to represent the United Kingdom. In fact, he represents only himself and a diminishing band of euro-enthusiasts, none of whom can command majority support in this country.

Thus, the loudest voices in the land are calling for more distance between the UK and the Union-across-the-water, with the latest contribution to come from erstwhile defence minister, Liam Fox.

Speaking at RUSI, at an event organised by the europhile Open Europe, Dr Fox will reinforce his reputation as "damaged goods", stating that Britain's position should be: "Back to the Common Market", with the UK demanding a renegotiation, the results of which would be put to a referendum.

In some influential quarters, the view is that Fox has not thought the issue through, and he is unlikely thus to have much effect on the continuing debate. What is going to drive that debate higher up the agenda, though, is the news that the long-awaited Cameron speech on the EU will probably be made "in the next few days".

With the last European Council of the year starting at the end of the week, that might be considered unfortunate timing. However, with the EU "quartet" having issued its latest report, entitled "Towards a genuine economic and monetary union", it is getting all the more urgent that Cameron states his position.

Rumour now has it that Mr Cameron is definitely moving towards an "in-out" referendum, based on a choice between a renegotiated relationship between the EU, and complete withdrawal. Still, then, the debate is being distorted by framing it in terms of "either/or" when, in fact, the most realistic choice is "negotiate and withdraw".

This message, we understand, has percolated to the higher reaches of the Cabinet, although it is clear that the UKIP hierarchy is unable to come to terms with this option. The "trap" mantra continues unabated, which means that, in the longer term, UKIP will write itself out of the script.

In the shorter term, though, there is little confidence in the Tory ranks that they will win the 2015 general election. It is possible that a robust speech on "Europe" by Cameron might claw back some hope, but with the prime minister embracing gay marriage and other issues inimical to the Tory Right, he is burning his bridges with some verve. Constituency activists are deserting him in their droves, with local parties in meltdown.

Furthermore, bogged down with his own "renegotiation" manta, it is unlikely that Cameron will offer anything that will convince potential UKIP voters to switch to the Tories, or enthuse stay-at-home voters to flock to the polls.

There is thus a distinct possibility that the "UKIP effect", combined with the Lib-Dim refusal to agree to new constituency boundaries, will see a narrow Labour win in 2015, and even a Lab-Lib coalition. In such an event, there is no doubt that the Party's treatment of Cameron will be merciless, and he will swiftly join the ranks of ex-Tory leaders.

Possibly, that then open the way for a new champion of the Tory right to emerge. The pretender, Fox, is yesterday's man – as is David Davis - so we are likely to see an entirely new figure emerge at the head of the league.

Unfortunately, that would mean we are looking at 2020 before we can see a serious attempt to withdraw from the EU, although this would not be very much longer than any timetable, should Cameron survive in office. The earliest one might expect an "in-out" referendum from him would be 2018.

By that time, of course, anything could have happened, but considering that, on 1 January, we will have been in the EEC/EU for forty years, to have even the prospect of withdrawal within the decade is something of an improvement. And if we do then get out, it will be a delicious irony that we saw the writing on the wall on the day that the "colleagues" were preening themselves over their silly prize.

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