EU Referendum

EU referendum: a scoop on the timing


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With this year's Conservative Party conference upon us, we see the BBC's Andrew Marr joining the throng of busy commentators who are asking how Mr Cameron will be dealing with "the threat of UKIP" and the bigger problem of "Europe".

Under the Marr spotlight, the prime minister decides to focus on the EU referendum, telling us that the only way we are going to get one is if he is put back in No 10 Downing Street, so that he can "deliver on his promise". Voting for UKIP isn't going to do that.

Marr points out that UKIP members actually want to get out of the EU. This triggers an exchange that has Cameron declaring that his goal is "to renegotiate our relationship with Europe". As the exchange develops, we see assertions made which have a profound impact on the shape of events to come and, in particular, the timing of any referendum.

Setting the scene. Mr Cameron launches into a tirade of dismissive rhetoric, which shows how he might be playing the "game" in the months to come. Referring to his renegotiation, he tells Marr: "People have said to me, this is all impossible, you're not going to be able to do it".

Then he launches into a box-ticking exercise that could almost be said to be truculent. "They also said, you can't cut the European budget. I have cut it. They also said you can't veto a European treaty. I did veto a European treaty. They said you'll never get out of the bailout mechanism. We got our of the bailout mechanism".

Actually, so far as the 2013 budget goes, we've seen a humiliating increase, with more to come. And, as regards the multi-annual period starting in 2014, that allows a notional reduction but also incorporates changes to the payment structure and also allows for reviews which will end up with us paying more.

As for his treaty "veto", there simply was no veto. It was a phantom veto which never existed. And then, people have never said that he Cameron could not veto a treaty – of course he can. But there was in the instance claimed, no treaty to veto, so there cannot have been a veto.

Not does the baillout mechanism offer Mr Cameron any comfort – this is a straw man argument. No one ever said that the UK could not end the commitment made by Gordon Brown, when the EU terminated its temporary European Financial Stability Facility and created the permanent rescue mechanism, the European Stability Mechanism. It needed to be done, and was done. But it does not end UK involvement in bailouts though the IMF and the Balance of Payment Facility.

Clearly, therefore, Cameron is living in his own fantasy construct. Logic is not his strong point. Having done all these amazing things, there can be no possible barrier to him doing yet another such thing.

Andrew Marr, to give him some credit, is unimpressed by these amazing things. He has been interjecting to ask Mr Cameron how "radical" he intends the renegotiation to be, and he returns to the subject. "Does it mean, for instance, ending the free movement of peoples", he asks.

Cameron responds by telling Marr there are two elements to the renegotiation. In the first instance, he wants to be focusing on "changing the European Union as a whole, because it's become too anti-competitive, too anti-enterprise, too bureaucratic. It needs to change if we're gonna compete in this modern, global world".

Nothing is offered has to how he intends to achieve this miracle, before he moves on to the next miracle: "changing Britain's relationship with this organisation".

To award the European Union the anodyne label of "organisation" is an interesting choice. If he Mr Cameron called it what it is, the supreme government of the UK (and the other member states), changing the relationship might look a little daunting. But, this is a lot easier.

As to the detail, Mr Cameron is keen to offer an example, the phrase "seeking an ever-closer union". That is not what the British people want. That's not what I want, he says.

Marr immediately asks whether Cameron intends to take the offensive phrase "out of the treaty", to which we don't get straight answer. "Other people can sign up to an ever-closer union. Other countries can, but Britain should not be in an ever-closer union and I'm determined to make sure we get out of that", Cameron says.

Now we come to the crunch point. "To get out of that would mean a full treaty renegotiation because it is at the heart of the treaty that we have signed at the moment", Marr observes. It isn't as simple as that because, if we take Cameron's objective at face value, he is suggesting that he is after a treaty change specific to the UK. That seems hardly likely.

Either way, though, Cameron is conceding that there has to be a treaty renegotiation. Furthermore, he is "convinced" one has to happen. "I became prime minister three years ago", says Cameron, reverting to his earlier formula: "People said there won't be any treaty renegotiations. I think we've already had three", he says.

Technically, that might be right but these would be minor and incidental changes. Marr asks if his treaty changes will mean a substantial re-writing of our relationship with the rest of the EU. "Yes", says Cameron, before Marr move on to talk about the Human Rights Act, letting the prime minister off the hook.

But Cameron has already let the cat out of the bag; he is going for a treaty renegotiation. We've been here before, but this is the first time I recall Mr Cameron agreeing that a "substantial re-writing" is involved.

For him, there is now no escape: a treaty convention is inevitable. This will take two years from inception to final report and the launch of an IGC, at which Mr Cameron will make his pitch. As we have discussed earlier, this shifts the outcome to 2018-2019. The timetable for a 2017 referendum simply falls apart. It cannot be.

Something has to give. Either Mr Cameron is lying about a treaty. He is just going through the motions, and does not want a full-scale renegotiation, hoping that a fudge will be sufficient to get him his preferred referendum answer. Alternatively - as he now claims - he is going for broke. And in that case, he just cannot have his referendum on schedule.

Andrew Marr clearly did not realise it but, had he understood the implications of what he had been told, he would have had a scoop on his hands.