Sunday

25th Feb 2024

Opinion

Cameron needs to bring home the bacon

  • Cameron has committed to hold a referendum on any new treaty that passes significant powers over to the European Union. (Photo: The Prime Minister's Office)

Having lost a great deal of support when he decided not to have a promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the British

prime minister, David Cameron promised that he would definitely repatriate powers from the EU. And at any rate he will ensure that there will be no more powers handed over to the European Union without primary legislation (which has always been required for new treaties anyway) and, possibly, a referendum.

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The European Union Act passed by parliament earlier this year had a so-called “referendum lock” written into it, which provided for a referendum on any new treaty that passed significant powers over to the European Union. Many people were doubtful about this “lock” as it left a good deal to the decision of the government; it did not acknowledge that powers were handed over between treaties and did not specify what “substantial” meant in this context.

When the first news of the Franco-German proposals for a new treaty that would, in effect, introduce fiscal governance for the eurozone countries and impose EU control in national budgets across the EU (or so it would seem from statements by commissioner Olli Rehn) it was assumed by many commentators that such a treaty would not be implemented into British law without a referendum. Surely, they argued, a new treaty of that kind would change Britain’s position within the European Union and her relationship with other member states and the EU’s institutions.

Not so, said Mr Cameron. We do not need a referendum on this treaty, whatever it might be, as it will not involve substantial transfer of power to the EU, thus fulfilling all the dire predictions about the pointlessness of the “referendum lock”.

Now David Cameron argues that he will be fighting hard in negotiations over a new treaty. He will insist (as will probably the commission and other member states) that a new treaty will need the signature of all 27 member states and that he will not sign on Britain’s behalf unless he receives certain guarantees in return.

Some of the more eurosceptic Conservative MPs have been urging him to use this new treaty for a more substantial gain – perhaps to repatriate some powers as he had promised before. But Mr Cameron does not go that far. He merely expresses the view that a “fiscally responsible eurozone” would be good for Britain and that in return for not interfering with the putative progress towards fiscal integration, the EU must guarantee that there will be no more regulation that might harm the City of London. There is also some talk of turning the EU into a more flexible and outward looking body. This is very similar to previous statements by British politicians and just as those, lacks detailed explanation as to what exactly Mr Cameron will insist on as guarantees and how he intends to enforce them.

As he has already ruled out a referendum, regardless of what the new treaty might say, he feels under no obligation to explain any of this though, possibly, he thinks that by not revealing his exact aims he might be able to negotiate better at the forthcoming European Council. But the vagueness of his arguments and his rejection of the idea of a referendum on the forthcoming treaty, despite that much-vaunted “referendum lock” is fast losing him support even in his own party.

Comments on the most widely read Tory comment website, Conservative Home, are uniformly distrustful and hostile. He will have to bring back some very definite commitments from Brussels and, perhaps, prove that the European Union Act was not some meaningless piece of legislation, passed to silence his eurosceptic critics.

Helen Szamuely is a writer and researcher on political affairs, based in London

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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