Cameron’s letter spells out no demands. It sets out “areas where [he is] seeking reforms”. The key point is not that these amount to a damp squib. It is that they seek to concede what has already been decided by the EU: the creation of a two-tier, two-speed Union, with “Associate Membership” conferred on those outside the eurozone. This will be formal recognition of what Cameron describes as “effectively two sorts of members of the European Union”. Or, more presentationally persuasive, ‘The British Model’.
This will not create a new relationship with the EU. It will be the same relationship – subservience – with a new, two-tier EU. The acid test will be this: will Cameron’s renegotiation (or meek acceptance of what the ‘colleagues’ have decided to offer him) result in the repatriation of any powers to Westminster? Any at all? The precise implications of Associate Membership will depend eventually on treaty negotiations. But we can confidently say that the answer will be No.
The outcome of this elaborate charade will leave Britain with the worst of both worlds, still locked in, but with even less influence.
The European Union was never primarily about a Common Market, still less about a free trade area. A free trade area presumes independent sovereign states trading with each other. The EU was designed from the start to absorb ‘member states’ into a supranational union. And the Common Market was a feint, designed to pave the way for progressive development into a single currency, fiscal and economic union and finally political union. Monnet and others were understandably implacably opposed to a genuine European free trade area.
While the original European Economic Community included six states — Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands — Britain led the way with the parallel creation of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA): the UK, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland. Eventually, the UK and Denmark, then Portugal, Austria, Finland and Sweden deserted EFTA to join the EU. Today, EFTA includes Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. All share access to the EU Single Market.
EFTA came to be seen as a ‘waiting room’ for those countries not yet ready or willing to join the EU. But it can equally be seen as a staging post to exit from the EU: the UK could leave the EU and rejoin EFTA, while preserving access to the Single Market. The European Commission is keen to neutralize the EFTA option (also known as the Norway option). So watch out for ‘Associate Membership’ of the EU being offered not only to the UK but also to the EFTA states. If successful, this manoeuvre would not only kill EFTA, but also close off the smoothest route to a UK exit from the EU. It’ll be like the three card trick: oops, now it’s gone!
Many British citizens appear to believe that Britain would be better off staying in the European Union, if only the terms of membership could be renegotiated. Definitions of the nature of the necessary changes vary. But there is an apparent desire to move to a more arms-length relationship with the EU. Pending the outcome of “renegotiation”, the argument is that one should wait-and-see.
This is a complete fantasy. The terms of membership of the European Union are set by the treaties which successive UK governments have (shamefully) signed. They cannot be changed except by fundamental change to the EU treaties. For a number of reasons of timetable and legal process, such changes cannot be achieved within the timetable Cameron has set out for holding a UK referendum — or in practical terms at all. The acquis communautaire — the acquired body of European Union legislation — cannot be repudiated by a ‘member state’ without leaving the Union.
What is also clear, though, is that the ‘leaders’ of the EU are desperate to shore up the structure of the eurozone, and are bent on exploiting current tensions to take a further major step towards financial, economic and political union — among the current eurozone countries. And the remaining ‘member states’? Plans have already been made to offer them a form of ‘Associate Membership’. This may protect against ‘ever closer union’; and will be trumpeted as a major triumph delivering the ‘best of both worlds’. But crucially it will not repatriate to the British people a single one of the powers already ceded to and exercised by the European Commission. Engrenage — the gearing or ratchet process which is core to the EU’s evolution — has no reverse direction.
Cameron hopes to deceive the British people into supporting continued membership of the European Union. All he can conceivably offer is cosmetic change. There is no ‘wait-and-see’ option. Exit from the European Union is — on principle — the only way to restore British sovereignty.
Many Britons seem to believe that we consented to Britain’s entry into the European Union. This is not true.
People under the age today of 60 or so can have had no direct memory or involvement in the debate at the time. In the general election of June 1970, Edward Heath’s Conservative Party achieved a surprise victory. The issue of Britain’s entry into the EU was a marginal one during the campaign; the Conservative Manifesto promised that “our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less”. But in 1972, without further consultation of the British people, Heath’s government passed the European Communities Act 1972, which paved the way for British entry into the EC. The British people were not consulted.
In the Spring of 1974, Harold Wilson’s Labour Party confronted the Heath government at the subsequent general election. On 23 February 1974, Enoch Powell said in a speech: “This is the first and last election at which the British people will be given the opportunity to decide whether their country is to remain a democratic nation, governed by the will of its own electorate expressed in its own Parliament, or whether it will become one province in a new European superstate under institutions which know nothing of the political rights and liberties that we have so long taken for granted.” A lifelong Conservative, he campaigned for a victory for Labour.
Harold Wilson defeated the Conservatives, having pledged to renegotiate terms for Britain’s membership and then hold a referendum on whether to stay in the EC. In the subsequent referendum, the British people voted for the status quo — continued membership — by a margin of 2:1. Those parliamentarians opposing continued membership were drawn from across the political spectrum, and included those most alive to the long tradition of parliamentary sovereignty: Enoch Powell, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, Peter Shore and others.