Homeless and helpless

David Cameron and William Hague

I remember there used to be a campaign in London on behalf of homeless people called “Homeless, not helpless”. Tory policy on Europe risks being both.

It is well-known that the Tories are against the Reform Treaty and also in favour of a referendum on that treaty, partly as a means of embarrassing Gordon Brown and partly as a means of stopping the treaty altogether. They are faced, though, with the prospect that the government will face down the demands for a referendum and also force the treaty through parliament so that, by the time of the next election, it has come into force. (The planned timetable is that the treaty will be ratified during 2008 to take effect from 1 January 2009, certainly in time for the next European elections in June of that year. The British general election, by contrast, has no fixed date, but is not likely to be held before May 2009 at the earliest.)

The question provoked by Tory demands for a treaty referendum while in opposition is what they would do were they to form a government after the next election. Would they try to undo ratification and hold a referendum then?

46 Conservative MPs have signed an Early Day Motion to that effect – read the text of the EDM here – but David Cameron is resisting the temptation. Mark Mardell, on his blog, suggests that the reason for the reticence is that renegotiating the treaty would dominate the Tory government’s first term in office and get in the way of his other priorities. I think there is more to it than that.

First, to go into the next election with a commitment to hold a referendum would push Europe up the agenda in the eyes of the voters and, as David Cameron has learned, the Tories do not benefit when that happens. Opposition to the EU sits oddly with the rest of his modernising agenda and he does not want to repeat the experience of William Hague and Michael Howard who tried to win a general election on the issue of Europe and lost it instead.

Secondly, a referendum that rejected the Reform Treaty would force Britain out of the EU altogether, which David Cameron claims not to want. It would be almost impossible to negotiate a new settlement with the other 26 member states, given how committed they are to the treaty after 7 long years of negotiation and debate. The Financial Times on 24 October reported a Tory party official as saying that calls for a post-ratification referendum on the Reform Treaty were “rather like buying back a house after you’ve sold it. You can do that but only if the people want to sell it.”

If that is true of the treaty after ratification, it is also true of the treaty now, too. Even now, alternative proposals for EU reform would require unanimous agreement among the member states. But where is the support elsewhere in Europe for them? The only option would be to leave the EU and negotiate a new relationship from the outside. Eurosceptic opposition to the Reform Treaty risks leaving Britain homeless as well as helpless.

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