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Richard North, 21/01/2013  


Guardian 020-owe.jpg

David Owen, former leader of something or other, is offering his words of wisdom on the debate about the EU, telling his readers that the period after the forthcoming Italian elections and the German federal elections this September would be best to start a negotiating process of EU reform.

Eurozone reform, he says, means the single market has to be restructured. It should include all EU and European Economic Area states, such as Norway and Iceland. Turkey, too, should be offered full membership. Then, Owen tells us, the key is to stop the single market requiring free movement of labour for all member states.

Free movement requires a country to reach levels of economic success and prosperity that make it far more likely their citizens will be content to remain within their own boundaries, he says. In the next few months a prudent European commission would extend the Romanian restriction on free movement from 2014 to 2018.

And then, for his next trick, Owen tells us that a restructured Single Market would need to adjust the voting formula for QMV, although he would allow a single European negotiator in world trade to remain.

This is very helpful to our cause, as it suggests that the opposition is singularly ill-informed. Apart from anything else, the changes suggested by Owen are of such an magnitude that the EU parliament would most certainly demand a treaty convention, as is its right under the Lisbon Treaty amendments.

That, as we know, is already on the cards, flagged up by Barroso. But it would also require a delay until after the euro elections, so the original timetable has to stand, putting Cameron's referendum at 2017-18. If the prime minister is determined to pursue the renegotiation route, the referendum simply cannot be earlier than that.

What worries Owen is that, over the five years of a long campaign, "the eurozone could falter, UK inward investment fall, jobs disappear and economic growth weaken still further". The sooner there is eurozone reform, matched by a restructuring of the single market, the better, he says.

However, a greater – if unspoken – reason for concern at the delay might be that the great scare stories that are being put about will not come to pass. And, as with the scares over the UK's refusal to join the euro, when the sky doesn't fall in, sentiment against the scaremongers will harden.

This is just as well, for we are seeing a drop in the polls in the support for leaving the EU. YouGov says 34 percent want to leave the EU, against 40 percent who want to stay in. July 2012 had 48 percent wanting to pull out and 31 percent wanting to stay in, so in the space of just over six months, we have seen significant reversal in sentiment.

At the same time, support for UKIP has fallen away, dropping to seven percent, the lowest recorded by YouGov in several months. Support for UKIP at the euros has also dropped back to 12 percent, putting the party in fourth place after the Lib-Dems on 13 percent, the Conservatives in second place on 30 percent, and Labour with 38 percent.

Not too much can be made of these UKIP figures, especially if one believes that recent high scores have been over-cooked. The current levels probably come closer to the real level of support, and even then they may still be exaggerated.

Reflecting on the referendum poll, those who only a few months ago were pushing for an immediate poll might well reflect that, had they been given their wish, we would have lost. It is going to take a considerable period to build a solid foundation of support.

If Mr Cameron was a gambling man, when he gives his speech this week (if he does), he might change tack completely and offer a snap in-out referendum. He could well win it, leaving UKIP stranded for the time being.

That would also make Lord Owen a very happy bunny, but I suspect it would not solve anything over the longer term. The underlying unhappiness would remain and only increase over time. Thus, the longer Mr Cameron leaves the referendum, to a point, the better it will be for us.

Never was it more true that, if you act in haste, you repent at leisure. But I bet that none of those who did want a referendum "yesterday" are even close to repenting.

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