With only two weeks to go, David Cameron is showing no sign of changing the basic pragmatism of his approach. He thinks there are many problems with the EU, but leaving will not solve them. He dislikes the European Parliament – it drives him ‘mad’ – but one has to be in it in order to influence it. All of which is perfectly legitimate.
The problem is that this isn’t a general election. It is a once in a generation event, perhaps once in a lifetime, so the argument for ‘better the devil you know’ doesn’t quite cut it. Voters can’t, or shouldn’t, be so easily swayed by the idea of settling until something better comes along. Though doing precisely that is often considered a key conservative tenet, it’s more complicated when you’ve only got one vote to change direction. Indeed, the Leave campaign has argued that there’s no such thing as a vote for the status quo. Britain either strives to grow by itself or else evolves according to the random mutations of the European Union, they say.
Voters may be choosing the stay in the European Union for the next thirty to fifty years, not just the next five. The future is unclear, and few facts can be forecast. So the Prime Minister needs some arguments of principle for staying in to which he can appeal when the facts change, or don’t turn out the way he’d have liked them to.
In European politics Cameron’s only ideal has been that of reform, through which he has hoped to re-establish a sense of control over the Union’s trajectory. He’s attempted to do this by shifting his party’s alliances in Brussels and Strasbourg. Few Brits know more about the ebbs and flows of the European political process than Edward McMillan-Scott, an MEP for 30 years, and none has been more directly affected by David Cameron’s maneuvers on the continent.
From 1997-2001 Macmillan-Scott was the leader of the Conservative MEPs in the European Parliament, and between 2004-2014 was four times elected one of its Vice-Presidents. In 2009, Conservative MEPs fulfilled a pledge that Cameron had made four years earlier whilst running for his party’s leadership when they defected from the centrist European People’s Party (EPP). They merged with other MEPs, mostly Polish, to form the European Conservatives and Reformists Group (ECR), an assembly of Eurosceptics and anti-federalists whom Nick Clegg memorably termed “a bunch of nutters, homophobes, anti-Semites and climate-change deniers”.
A lifelong pro-European, McMillan-Scott objected to the move, and in the year of its making successfully stood as an independent Vice-President against the ECR’s own nominee, Polish MEP Michal Kaminski, whom he’d discovered to have past links with an extremist group in his home country. He was expelled from the Conservative Party as a result by William Hague and joined the Liberal Democrats in 2010.
I spoke to MacMillan-Scott about the Conservative Party’s relationship with Europe, who reminded me that Cameron is really confronting a legacy left by Thatcher. In 1988, the Iron Lady made a speech in Bruges that defined what she wanted from the European Union. She stated five guiding principles: ‘willing cooperation between sovereign states’; ‘encouraging change’; ‘Europe open to enterprise’; ‘Europe open to the world’; ‘Europe and defence’.
Distilled and summarized, the speech objected to the concentration of power in Brussels, urged dogmatic policies to be abandoned in favour of practical problem solving, championed free markets over central planning, opposed regulations that would rigidify Europe’s labour market, argued for border controls, denounced protectionism and upheld NATO as the real defence of the West.
At a time when the shape of the European political landscape was under fundamental dispute, the Bruges Speech constituted a clear British vision of what it should look like, and many British politicians, especially in the Conservative party, have never lost sight of it. It formed the backbone of Thatcher’s opposition to then president of the European Commission Jacques Delors, and spawned the creation of the Bruges Group, a think-tank that has spread its word as gospel ever since.
Almost thirty years on, many of its disciples have lost their faith, and feel that Delors’ dream of political integration has won at the expense of Thatcher’s vision for economic cooperation. For such people, there is nothing that David Cameron could have brought back from his negotiations that would have been satisfactory. They’re not interested in the semantics of European political diplomacy because they refuse to speak a language that’s lost all meaning to them. They simply want out. Can’t the Prime Minister offer them anything better than profound disappointed if Remain wins?
One of Edward McMillan-Scott’s great regrets is that over the course of a thirty-year career in European politics, he has not heard one Tory – barring John Major – make a speech in favour of the EU. This is what David Cameron should do. He has so far only recommended that the British people indefinitely remain a reluctant member of an imperfect organization.
The Prime Minister’s 2013 ‘Bloomberg Speech’ serves only to remind people that his renegotiations were a failure. His grand reforming ambitions reformed almost nothing. He needs a Bruges Speech of his own – perhaps a ‘Brussels Speech’ – to tell us why it’s worth staying in the EU for the next thirty years in spite of this, and what he envisions Britain’s role in the world to be:
- What does opting out of ‘ever closer Union’ actually opt the UK out of?
- Does he believe in limited immigration, and if so how would he push for it within the EU?
- Has the definition of sovereignty really changed due to globalization?
- Or does the ‘shared and extendable’ version only apply to medium-sized economies?
- If so, does this amount to an admission that Britain relies on the EU to be a world power?
- Why is it worth prioritizing the single market over emerging and faster growing economies?
- Does the United Kingdom have a responsibility to lead the European Union through its darkest house?
David Cameron will be gone in four years time, if not before, but the European Union he wants us to remain a part of will still be here. He needs to answer the questions that people will still be asking beyond his final term in office.