Monday, November 02, 2009
It looks almost certain that the Lisbon Treaty is about to be ratified.
From that moment onwards it becomes binding on all the members, ourselves included.
Up to now David Cameron has been relying on his promise, made 26 months ago to Sun readers, that if the treaty wasn't ratified by the time of the next election we would offer the public a referendum on the treaty if elected. The big issue has always been 'yes, but what will you do if the treaty has been ratified by then?' and the answer has been 'we will cross that bridge when we come to it'.
Well here we are, the Treaty is about to be ratified and we have arrived at the bridge. In the next few days my party has to say what we are going to do about Europe if we are elected.
Many Conservatives feel that we should go ahead and have a referendum on the treaty anyway - but in my view this would be meaningless, we can't leave just the treaty we would have to leave the EU entirely. The referendum would in the end be about staying in or leaving the EU - the Liberal Democrats proposal. This is the most appealing option on the surface, we would have a vote and put the issue to bed for the next thirty years or so.
Why won't there be a vote like that? because all research showns that voters are very afraid of leaving (or being chucked out) of the EU. It looks very likely that an 'in or out' referendum would overhwelmingly say 'in' - and of course that would also then validate Lisbon - which is why the very pro EU Lib Dems suggested it in the first place.
The real challenge for those fighting the growing EU octopus is to win the hearts and minds of the British public over to the fact that all would not be lost if we left. They need to establish that far from having something to fear from leaving the EU there could be economic advantages, as evidenced by two of of the worlds wealthiest (per head of population) nations -Norway and Switzerland- neither of whom are in the Union. But that is not where we are today and a referendum that endorsed the status quo would in effect make the EU influence over British policy even greater than it already is.
So I am reliably informed that Cameron will instead propose that we pledge in our next manifesto to repatriate several important powers from Europe, possibly returning the opt-outs that John Major negotiated for instance, which backed with a win at the general election would give him the authority to go in and give the EU a Mrs Thatcher style hand-bagging.
ConservativeHome the very Euro-sceptic website run by Tim Montgomerie says "One member of the shadow cabinet told me that 'we don't need a mandate to renegotiate from a referendum... A manifesto mandate will be just as good'. CCHQ is worried that a referendum could easily become about issues other than Europe. 'Imagine,' said one key official at CCHQ, 'if we are in the middle of very, very difficult budget cuts. The unions and our political opponents would urge voters to use the referendum to kick the Tory government in the teeth. A manifesto mandate is safer, cleaner, less distracting."
If this does turn out to be the strategy it is a high risk one, but it might work. It will provide just enough to push the issue past the General Election (though it will add to suspicions amongst the UKIP tendancy that Cameron may - like many predecessors - fudge the Europe question and it will do nothing to encourage their support).
Everyone knows how explosive the EU issue has been for the party in the past and there is little appetite for a fight now, however the next generation of Conservative MP's looks likely to be the most Eurosceptic ever, and in the longer term they may well be unhappy with any Government that is not going to fully and openly consult with the British public over the whole Europe issue.
I believe that for this plan to work it will need some pretty instant results. If David Cameron as Prime Minister turns out to be as nationally self-interested and hard-nosed as Mrs Thatcher was and if he wins a big mandate at the election and then wins big concessions from the EU then much of the heat on this topic will probably dissipate. But there are a lot of 'ifs' there.