Tony Blair reminded us of his political genius and why he won three general elections when he mocked David Cameron’s Europe speech comparing the prime minister to the sheriff in the comedy western Blazing Saddles who points a gun at his own head and says: ‘You do what I want or I’ll shoot my brains out.’
It communicated brilliantly and with humour the folly of the position the prime minister has now got himself into, except he must now keep the gun at his own head shouting threats for years. As the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, said, this is not a speech Cameron wanted to make and not a referendum he wanted to promise. He has been driven to it because he has lost control of his party and is spooked by the perceived threat from the United Kingdom Independence party. I say perceived. Support for UKIP has been falling in recent polls as people get the feeling the worst of the euro crisis might be over. Support for Britain remaining in the European Union has also been rising.
But Cameron has allowed himself to be pushed into promising a referendum at an unknown time, on the unknown outcome of an uncertain negotiation. What a desperate abrogation of the British national interest. What Britain and the rest of Europe need right now are policies for growth and the leadership to see the EU through the eurozone crisis. Instead, the prime minister has inflicted more than two years of uncertainty on us until the next election and, God forbid were the Tories to win it, several more years after that. Even the most Europhobic businessperson will find it hard to deny that this will have a chilling effect on investment decisions and therefore growth.
And what are the prospects of a successful renegotiation? It is hard to say because Cameron has not named the areas of competence he wants to repatriate. What we do know is that he is unable to name a single other EU member state that would support the UK position. And do not forget such a move requires unanimity among member states. Britain has many natural allies in Europe: in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Germany itself. They share our desire to reform Europe so that we can compete more successfully in the world. But they want to see those changes for the EU as a whole and are dismayed by Cameron’s approach. As the Finnish prime minister put it: ‘You can’t pick the currants out of the bun.’
We have had a good example already this year of how fraught the whole issue of repatriating powers is in a policy I know something about – fisheries, which I covered as a minister for four years and is high on the Tory Europhobes’ list for repatriation. The day before Cameron’s speech mackerel was taken off the sustainable fish list because of overfishing by Iceland. We and other EU countries share the mackerel stock with Iceland but there is nothing we can do about their overfishing because they are not in the EU. If you multiply this across the range of policy areas that require cross-border cooperation, or which are vital for the functioning of the single market such as crime, migration or climate change, the list of competences that it is desirable, let alone practicable, to repatriate shrinks and vanishes.
Labour has been gifted something rare for an opposition – a position that is both in the national interest and the right politics. It might not feel like that in the short term, as the Europhobic press hails Cameron its conquering hero. But Labour’s tactics and strategy are right. Pro-EU and pro-reform, acknowledging we too would hold a referendum were there any future proposals to transfer powers from member states to the EU that affected us.
‘Wait and see’ can be easy to mock, but there are so many ifs and buts about Europe in the next few months, let alone the next five years, that this time it is the right policy.
Ben Bradshaw is MP for Exeter