David Cameron promised in the last Parliament that if the Conservative Party were re-elected with a majority in 2015, there would be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union before the end of 2017. Our membership is controversial as 12.5% of the electorate voted for UKIP in May and a significant number of Conservatives (and some Labour MPs) also want Britain to leave the EU
The PM wants us to stay in a reformed EU and this week he set out the four main issues in his negotiating agenda. The first concerns economic governance. For Britain to remain a member, the EU has to recognise that it is a multi-currency union which means that UK taxpayers should not be liable to bail out Eurozone members who run into economic crises, like Greece did last year. Any changes the Eurozone needs to make should not apply to non-members and any decisions that affect the latter should be made by all members.
Cameron’s second goal is to improve Euro competitiveness. Unemployment in the EU, especially youth unemployment, is too high, (apart from the UK). He wants less regulation that burdens business, and attributes the superior performance of the UK economy, since 2010.
The third issue is sovereignty. Britain is not interested in ever closer union and Cameron wants national parliaments to be able to work together to block EU legislation. Subsidiarity was one of the basic principles of the EU founders, and Cameron wants that to be taken seriously so that powers that don’t need to reside in Brussels should be returned to national parliaments.
Immigration and welfare are the fourth targets. Free movement of labour is acceptable so long as it is not in order to plug into the UK’s welfare system. Incomers from the EU should be working here for four years before claiming benefits, child benefit should no longer be paid to families not living here, free movement should not apply to new member states until their economies have converged with those of existing members and, it should not prevent the UK denying entry to criminals or deporting them when necessary.
Predictably these objectives did not satisfy those who want us to leave the EU. As one Conservative concluded, ‘No longer do we have to pretend there’s going to be a substantial renegotiation and we can get on with campaigning to come out’. Another argued that the onus on those who want us to remain in the EU is to explain, ‘Why we should put up with being a second-tier country in an increasingly centralised EU, paying more and more, and losing more and more control’. The Opposition spokesman was more positive, ‘Britain is a more powerful, prosperous and secure country as a result of its membership of the EU, and we want to see it play a full role in shaping a reformed Europe’.
To succeed , the PM must persuade the 27 other leaders to accept the changes he is proposing. He is more likely to succeed if they see that those changes are in their national interests too. He also has to persuade the British people that our future will be more secure and prosperous if we remain in the EU. Ultimately, the voters will decide, so thinking through how we will vote is crucial and prayer is an essential part of that.