Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Cameron's moment of truth

With this afternoon's confirmation that the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, has finally signed the Lisbon Treaty, all questions turn to how David Cameron is going to respond.

Klaus's signature, following a valiant resistance, removes the last remaining hurdle preventing the treaty from becoming law.

David Cameron gave a "cast iron guarantee" of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in an article in The Sun back in September 2007.

In the same article he said of Gordon Brown's refusal to give us a say that "It's the arrogant belief that he - and only he - has the right to decide what's best for Britain's future."

So is Cameron seriously intending to ditch the idea of an EU referendum altogether - and be condemned by his own words in Britain's most widely read newspaper?

Is there any integrity to his broader rhetoric about fixing our 'broken politics'?

Lisbon problem

Cameron's new difficulty with the Lisbon referendum is not hard to see.

Once ratified, the Lisbon Treaty will be merged into the existing EU treaties and become practically impossible to reverse in one go.

Voting weights will change, EU positions and institutions will be created - such as those of the full-time President of the Council of Ministers and High Representative for Foreign Affairs - and the EU's powers will be amended across the broad range of policy areas its institutions now preside over.

The 26 other national governments would have to agree to any changes, and are not likely to agree to reversing all this in one go.

Britain could of course still hold a retrospective referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, even after it's ratified. But at that stage, little practical change could come of the result.

As a symbolic vote, finally putting on public record Britain's opposition to the EU centralisation project, the idea of a Lisbon referendum still has some merit.

But in this 'new situation', shouldn't we be aiming higher than that? Aiming for something that brings about real change?

New treaties

What David Cameron will face, if he wins the next election, will not be the Lisbon Treaty any more. Rather, the newly amended versions of the main EU treaties, incorporating the Lisbon changes across the EU's entire field of operation.

His position, so far, is that in this case "political integration will have gone too far" and "the Treaty would lack democratic legitimacy in this country."

Towards addressing the scale of political integration, he has talked of reclaiming powers for Britain in specific, targetted areas - such as social and employment policies. Areas like justice and fisheries have also been discussed.

In doing so, he could seek to roll back the Lisbon Treaty piecemeal. But such a plan would go further, and reclaim powers conceded in treaties long before Lisbon existed.

More broadly, such a demand would undermine the entire idea and direction of the EU as we know it today.

But we've yet to hear how Mr Cameron proposes to resolve the EU's "lack of democratic legitimacy".

Dangerous path

As the only major party that has, thus far, stuck to its guns in supporting a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the Conservatives must tread very carefully if they hope to carry over public faith and support to such a new strategy.

Most people don't trust politicians, and many eurosceptics don't trust the Conservatives any more than the other major parties.

What must first be made crystal clear to those within the Westminster Village is that trust will not be forthcoming based alone on fine words in a Conservative manifesto.

We've been there and done that. Labour and the Lib Dems, with their broken manifesto promises, have put paid to trust ever being given again on that basis alone.

Rollback referendum

If David Cameron wants to be seen as a leader - as someone who can be trusted to act - what's needed in tomorrow's policy announcement is a firm pledge to hold an EU referendum of some sort early in the first term of a Conservative government.

If not on the Lisbon treaty, then that referendum should be held on the package of powers that Cameron proposes to repatriate - on Britain's 'new deal' with the EU.

This pledge of a replacement EU vote is the only possible bridge by which supporters of a Lisbon referendum will feel able to transfer from that "cast iron guarantee" to the new policy.

The alternative - a complex renegotiation plan and no referendum pledge - is a path that threatens the Conservatives with internal divisions, agitation by eurosceptics both inside and outside the party, public mistrust and, ultimately, election loss.

Make or break

Cameron's announcement tomorrow might not in itself be enough to win him the next general election.

But if it lacks a replacement EU referendum for the one we were promised on the Lisbon Treaty, it could easily lose it for him.

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