“You know what? They still think we are bluffing.The other European countries are looking at Britain with a quizzical half-smile as if they can’t quite believe it. Our friends and partners cannot imagine why we would be quite so mad as to want to cut off our nose to spite our face and actually leave the European Union. After all this time – and with all the reputed benefits of the single market – they simply cannot fathom why a rich, free-trading, outward-looking nation like Britain would even contemplate disengagement from a club of like-minded western European nations, not to mention the largest integrated market in the world.
They think it is a fit, a fever. As soon as the debate gets going, they think that the British public will wake up to the facts, and that Parliament will become an instant hotbed of cold feet. They think, in other words, that Britain is overwhelmingly likely to vote for the status quo; and that is why they are currently treating the negotiations as a rigmarole of the kind that the EU is well used to, where everyone gets together to fool the electorate of whichever country is so vulgar as to want to change the Treaty.
And when we try to tell them that we mean it, they stifle a yawn and look at their watches and say: “Treaty change? Donnez-moi un break. You want fundamental reform? Tirez l’autre, il y a des bells on.”
“No longer the unwilling component of an unprecedented attempt at political unification, but independent, standing or falling on our own merits”
That is why today the Prime Minister is so right to flash some steel – to unsheathe a section of the blade that might soon be used to cut the rope and set Britain free. Free to make our own laws and our own trade deals; to have impact in the world commensurate with our own abilities, no longer believing that we can somehow puff ourselves up and “punch above our weight” by contriving to call the shots among 28 nations in the smoke-free corridors of Brussels. No longer to sacrifice parliamentary democracy for diplomatic “influence”; no longer the subset of a superstate; no longer the unwilling component of a unique and unprecedented attempt at political unification, but independent, standing or falling on our own merits.
David Cameron is making it clear, in his long-awaited speech, that if he doesn’t get a satisfactory result in those negotiations, then he could lead the Out campaign; and in that great release of pent-up Eurosceptic energy there can be little doubt that he would be victorious.
And then what? Well, there would unquestionably be a scratchy period. There would be anxiety in Washington, where they like the convenience of having their closest ally round the table in the EU. There would be nervousness among some of the big international investors in the UK, who would not want to be shut out from the Single Market – and those fears would have to be allayed.
In many EU countries – and this is a point that weighs with me – there would be real shock and dismay from those who think that Britain has much to contribute, and who know in their hearts that without active British engagement, the history of Europe in the last 100 years would have been (to put it mildly) a whole lot worse.
But is that enough in 2015, 70 years after the end of the last war? Must British influence be expressed through this supranational body, with all its anti-democratic practices?
If we are to be successful in this negotiation – and stay in a reformed EU – then our friends and partners must understand that we are serious in our aims. The Prime Minister is rightly calling for reform that will give this country back control of its borders; that will stop the one-way ratchet towards ever closer union; that will curtail the profusion of regulation; that will stop the eurozone countries from bullying those EU countries who do not use the euro and probably never will.
We need somehow to persuade our friends of what their own electorates are telling them – that it is better and more democratic to ensure that as much decision making as possible is handed back to national parliaments, and we need the negotiations to give effect to that ambition as well.
It can work. I am sure that David Cameron can get what he wants by the end of next year. And if our friends are so irrational as to say no, and we vote accordingly to come out, is that really the end of the story? Look at all previous “no” votes. The Danes voted no. The French, the Irish, even the Dutch – they have all at one stage or other put two fingers up to the treaties. They are still members. The other countries just had to make the necessary adjustments.
“In the coming campaign we will hear torrents of drivel from all the people who traditionally warn about us about leaving”
Indeed, you could argue that the only language our friends understand is an initial no – and that is the only thing that will really bring them to the table, make them focus on the need for reform. Britain’s relationship with Europe has already changed, in the sense that we are not members of the dominant political project – the single currency, with all its further erosions of democracy. We are already members of a very different club from France and Germany. But there are other members of that club; others who are not in the euro but who want free trade. It would be no bad thing to lead that group, to formalise what is already a semi-divorce.
One thing is sure: in the coming campaign we will hear absolute torrents of drivel from all the people who traditionally warn about us not being included in some European project – big business, the CBI, the Europhiles in Parliament. Remember: they were wrong about the ERM, they were wrong about the euro and they are already exaggerating the downsides of leaving.
We want to stay in, but not at any price. David Cameron is right to make that clear.”