There are only so many times you can see EU promises left unfulfilled before you realise that a more effective way of securing change is needed. That is why David Cameron is right to put “full-on Treaty change” and “bringing powers back from Brussels” at the heart of his renegotiation strategy. Sadly, Jean-Claude Juncker appears to have other ideas.
Reports that the controversial European Commission president has ruled out Treaty change before 2019 suggests he is deaf to the reality that the EU needs fundamental reform to keep Britain inside. Without Treaty change, reform will be piecemeal at best, or we will be reliant on promises that Brussels has a tendency to forget, ignore or “reinterpret”.
Delaying Treaty change is simply kicking the can down the road. One suspects that a number of European leaders are burying their heads in the sand, hoping that they will not have to deal with serious pressure for reform if Cameron is not re-elected. This attitude ignores the pressing issues the EU faces that can only be solved by Treaty change. At the very least, the Eurozone needs further fiscal union and debt sharing to address the structural problems that make sustained economic growth across the currency bloc so elusive.
Domestically, it’s no surprise that the “in-at-all-costs” brigade is desperate to avoid Treaty change. Under current UK law, they know that it would trigger a referendum no matter who is in power. Eventually, both those in the UK (even former proponents of Britain joining the euro) and those on the continent will wake up to the necessity of proper reform and realise that this makes a referendum inevitable. They may try to delay it, but after years of broken promises, the public will be rightly sceptical of pledges of “jam tomorrow”.
A vote will happen sooner or later, but that does not mean we should rush into a referendum months after the General Election. Nigel Farage has said he wants a public vote in 2015. His impatience is understandable, but it would be a mistake. It would reduce Britain’s chances of securing the best deal – either inside a very different EU, or outside it altogether.
Instead, we should seek a properly renegotiated deal first. Polling shows that a clear majority of businesses backs both a referendum and a looser, trading-focused relationship with the EU. That means pursuing a renegotiation strategy which EU leaders will have to face up to, whether they like it or not.
Pushing for exit tomorrow risks leaving Britain stuck with the status quo if the public and business do not believe we have exhausted every opportunity to make our position within the EU tolerable. And it is impossible to imagine how that position would be in Britain’s long-term interests without Treaty change.
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