Writing for the Sunday Times on the 19th of September 2015 the Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox describes the problems that beset the EU referendum.
No one knows exactly the details of the renegotiation in which the British government is currently involved with our European partners. We do, however, know a number of things. We know from the prime minister’s Bloomberg speech some of the themes, if not the specifics, that will be driving the approach of his negotiating team; changes to the single market as a result of the Eurozone crisis; dealing with the crisis of competitiveness across the continent; and removing the lack of democratic accountability.
Moreover, the prime minister has indicated his wish to move away from the entire concept of “ever closer union”, which has been the underpinning for the direction of travel of the European project for the last 40 years.
We also know that following the Conservative victory at the general election, there will now be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU before the end of 2017, fulfilling a promise made to the British people and ending decades during which they were denied a voice on this most important constitutional issue.
We also know, however, that for many of the changes that the British government would like to see entrenched in European law and safe from interpretation by the European court, they would need to be embedded in an EU treaty. The chancellor has made it clear that there must be treaty change to protect the City of London.
Most Conservative MPs, myself included, have taken the view that we need to see details of the deal secured by the prime minister and the chancellor before we make a final decision on how to campaign in the referendum – a view that, I believe, reflects the inherent fairness of the British people.
European issues have risen to greater prominence recently, with the issue of free movement of people brought into sharp focus by the large number of refugees and economic migrants coming to Europe. This comes on top of the Greek crisis, itself a symptom of the chronic instability of the Euro, due to its fundamentally flawed architecture and the failure of European leaders to establish an economic rather than a political currency. Recent polls have shown a closing of the gap between the two sides, with the most recent ICM poll showing no statistical difference between the two camps and the referendum too close to call.
There is, however, a new complication which seems to be developing – the growing view that it would be impossible to deliver treaty change before the likely date of the referendum in 2017. The many reasons for this include the proximity of national elections in other EU states, where they would rather avoid discussion of some of the issues involved ahead of their date with the electorate.
This presents a number of problems for us in the UK, particularly those of us who take a sceptical view of Britain’s current relationship with the EU and who believe that the concept of ever closer union is fundamentally unacceptable. It boils down to this: any deal that does not require treaty change will not fundamentally alter either Britain’s relationship with the EU or the internal workings of the EU itself, and will therefore not be worth having. It follows, therefore, that any deal worth its salt will require treaty change.
Herein lies the dilemma: if a meaningful deal requires treaty change, but treaty change cannot be delivered before the date of the referendum, where does that leave the British people in reaching a decision? The answer to this apparently unsolvable conundrum seems to lie in the concept of treaty change that will be promised for the future and guaranteed by whatever pledges and wording the negotiators can achieve.
I believe that this would be an utterly unacceptable proposition to put to the British people, for two reasons. First, governments change, and the promises made by one government would not necessarily be legally binding on any of successor – that would certainly be true in the United Kingdom. Second, and even more important, is that even if the leaders of all our partners were to give their assent to the future treaty change, a number of them, notably France, the Netherlands and Ireland, require ratification of any treaty change in a referendum.
Were we to accept the concept of “the post-dated check” we would be asking the British people to vote in a referendum for something that was utterly dependent upon the electorates of France, Germany and Ireland at some point in the future, ill-defined and completely unpredictable. Those in Britain who might feel they were being sold “a pig in a poke” would be completely justified in doing so.
This is the most important constitutional decision made by the British people in more than a generation, certainly the greatest in my political lifetime. It must be underpinned by certainty, not promises, and must not be yet another triumph of wishful thinking.
Ever since I entered parliament, I have been told that Europe is moving in our direction when, to any objective scrutiny, it has been moving in exactly the opposite direction – towards greater integration and unification.
If Britain decides to leave the European Union, it holds no fear for me, as I believe our country is more than able to hold its own in the era of globalisation. But I fully share the view of many that Britain as a purely economic project, free from political influence, would be a worthwhile outcome. I do not, however, believe that that is a likely scenario.
Whatever our views, it is essential that we have a referendum that produces a clear outcome and direction for the country. If our negotiation requires treaty change, then we must have it before the referendum takes place.