Did Cameron jump or was he pushed?

Summary

Some thoughts on Cameron’s EU referendum announcement

One thing I’ve noticed in recent times is the increasing media profile of UKIP – both in the newspapers and on television. For a party that has no representation in the House of Commons the amount of coverage as far as England is concerned feels like it outweighs the Greens, any of the independents and the nationalist parties of the other countries that make up the EU.

Cameron’s gamble

And it is a gamble. Whether a coldly calculated one, I’m not so sure. Was his hand forced by restless backbenchers fanned by the print media? To what extent did he assume that by making such a commitment he’d force the hand of France and Germany? To what extent did he calculate that this would cause problems for Labour?

There was the predicted ‘letter to The Times’ from a list of big business types, that were quickly fisked by social media types as to who had donated how much to Conservative Party funds and which were peers that took the party whip in the Lords. Others pointed to inconsistencies such as wanting to protect The City from EU regulation despite calls from some quarters saying that the uncertainty would cause problems for City institutions and investors. (Followed by calls that the country should not be swayed by big business interests. You work it out). I guess big business is divided along the lines of where you do your big business. Then there’s Obama.

One thing it won’t do (in my opinion) is resolve the EU question once and for all. Why? The politicians simply won’t be able to agree on a question to put to the people. Just as with the AV vote, the real question should have been about proportional representation. As it was, the question was ‘do you want something straight forward and easy to understand, or something more complicated?’

Starting positions

In a way I can understand why Ed Miliband didn’t want to get shoe-horned into accepting Cameron’s terms of reference. Cameron hasn’t set out what his starting position is going to be for any negotiations. There may be concessions that Cameron is seeking from the EU that Miliband, Labour and the trade unions simply would not accept. The fault line here is the Social Chapter – stubbornly opposed by the Conservatives throughout the 1990s but backed by Labour (and subsequently signed up to in 1997).

“Define success”

Exactly. I guess for Cameron, success would be repatriating most if not all of the things on his shopping list, then backing the EU to the hilt with the backing of all of the tabloids, while watching UKIP wither on the vine. Disaster would be (assuming a 2015 election win) not getting any of his key demands, being forced by Establishment institutions to back the EU then losing the referendum. This would cost him his leadership.

What would success look like for Miliband – assuming he wins the 2015 election? Assuming the Coalition legislates for a referendum, compelling it say not later than 2017, Miliband would either have to zap the legislation (taking up valuable legislative time while getting a roasting from the press) or seek his own concessions (whether similar to, or different to the Conservatives) and then go to the people.

What will the world look like in 2017?

Different to the one we’re in now. The pace of technological change has been astounding and we’re not even in the middle of the social media revolution. In terms of social media use, it feels like we’ve just gone over the tipping point. Large institutions are still trying to get their heads around how people are using social media. What will this look like in four years time? Where will the UK – and the world be economically? Who’d predict where the Eurozone would be in four years time? Therefore, what the question (and the context of it) might be today near as dammit won’t be the same in 2017.

I look back four years ago. I was in the civil service – going through a bit of a rough patch on a number of fronts, but still in a stable job and career – so I thought. Yes, the banks had imploded but I had no idea what would be on the horizon post 2010, let alone 2013. If someone had said one possible scenario-in-four-years-time for me back in 2009 was doing what I am doing now, I’d have found that highly unlikely. Treading water in the civil service would have been my guess. Would I have guessed about the Arab Spring or Bin Laden? No.

Years of uncertainty

This is the (self-inflicted) problem that the political and financial classes face.  Yes, to say the European Union has serious democratic mandate and accountability issues is an understatement – to say nothing of its translucent and complicated policy-making processes. Accountability deficit? You be the judge.

For multinational firms, one question they will be asking is what the risk-premium is on investing in the UK – especially if they have a large EU market. The one country likely to come out of these four years of uncertainty well is the Republic of Ireland. (And the latter needs it given the kicking ordinary people there got from the banking crisis).

“If your firms are multinational your regulator needs to be”

This is a concept I’ve come across time and again. Having seen first hand the power and influence lobbyists have on behalf of their clients on government policy, it feels that the EU as an institution is the only one powerful enough to stand up for ordinary people. (Whether it does this or not is a different question – there are up to 30,000 lobbyists in Brussels alone compared with 4,000 in Westminster).

One of the positives to come out of all of this is that political leaders from across the continent will be forced to come up with some sort of coherent vision of what the EU is and is going to become. How that will be spun by the media remains to be seen. The only ‘positive’ message I’ve seen of late on ‘Europe’ has come from The Green Party – who have tried to set out a vision for Europe. One of the risks for Ed Miliband is that the Greens could steal some of his thunder if he fails to come up with something similar – assuming he aligns with the pro-EU side. There is a long history in Labour of hostility towards the EU’s predecessor, and a number of left-wing MPs have been hostile to the EU for many years. Over the next few years we may find Labour have their own problems with Europe. I doubt they will be as big as the Conservatives as traditionally the EU has forced the hand of UK governments on measures such as the environment and workers rights over the past couple of decades.

“Does this mean The Greens and UKIP are the winners?”

Well, you could say they are the ones with clear platforms. One is ‘Yes to referendum, yes to staying in, yes to reforming from within’ while the other is ‘Yes, No, No.’ The Tories seem to be ‘Yes, don’t know – depends on what we get from negotiations, them over there in the Eurozone need to sort things out’. Labour seem to be ‘No – but hang on, Yes but hang on, Yes.’ While the Lib Dems seem to be ‘We’d rather not at the moment, Yes, Yes.’

What does the Coalition think?

Cameron’s announcement was a party political one – one as Leader of the Conservative Party. He was setting out his party’s policy, just as Nick Clegg set out his when, as the media have gotten used to doing, ask a minister from the other Coalition partner whenever a minister makes an announcement. Europe is one of the Coalition’s fault lines.

But does the general public notice the subtle difference between speaking as party leader vs speaking as head/deputy head of government? I’m not sure that everyone does. It’s a bit like policy civil servants trying to explain to people that while they work for politicians, they are not active members of political parties that happen to be in government. (For most policy civil servants, being active in this manner would breach the Civil Service Code. If you were a minister would you trust the policy advice of someone openly and publicly campaigning for you to be kicked out of office? Exactly).

“So…what’s going to happen?”

In the grand scheme of things, I’m a bit “Meh” to it all. About 15 years ago I’d have gotten all Mr Angry about all things EU – in those days I believed what was written in the papers. But these days, for me the global picture is an even bigger mess than the EU. Perhaps in that regard #IagreewithNick [Clegg]. There are more important things to be dealing with than an in-out referendum.

If Cameron’s gamble forces the hand of the EU and drives improvement in systems, processes, accountability and transparency, then great. This will all depend however on what the starting negotiating positions are of both Cameron and the EU. If Cameron’s domestic political position is not strengthened – vis-a-vis UKIP in particular, the EU’s negotiating position may be strengthened. Some quarters might turn around and say let’s wait till the 2015 election – just as the EU did in late 1996/97, knowing that Major was heading for a wipeout & a new administration taking a different approach.

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