The Ancien regime of the EU is far from popular. Today we see the full extent of the UK electors protest over the EU’s actions. Voters are fed up with the UK having too little control over its own borders, annoyed that we have to pay benefits according to the whims of the European Court, angry that we cannot extradite whom we wish, livid at the EU’s dear energy policy and frustrated at the ever growing burden of regulation that hits motorists, small business people, savers and many others.
It follows large votes for non mainstream parties in Euroland, where the damage being done by the EU is considerably greater. There high and rising unemployment and endless tax rises and austerity packages courtesy of the EU are adding to the misery.
Some in the mainstream media and parties take comfort from phrases like “it is a protest vote”, it “wasn’t mainly about Europe”, “it’s what you expect mid term”. They would be wise to think again. It is a sign that European government now has too many tentacles. More voters now wish to express anger at just how much power was transferred from UK democracy to EU bureaucracy by the Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon Treaties without a referendum, as they see the results of the UK not even being able to control its own borders, welfare and criminal justice system. That is why all the mainstream parties are suffering.
Labour lost votes to UKIP in South Shields, and the Lib Dems lost votes everywhere, as well as the Conservatives suffering substantial defections of their voters to UKIP. The first mainstream party to grasp the significance of this mood and to offer a solution to the complex web of issues that have upset so many people will do the nation a service and make itself more likely to win the 2015 General Election.
Mr Cameron has so far come the closest to understanding it, when he made his excellent Bloomberg speech. For the first time a UK Prime Minister has made it UK policy to negotiate a new relationship with the EU. For the first time since 1975 a PM has said we will need a referendum giving people the chance to vote to leave the EU if the new relationship secured is not to their liking. Welcome though this is, it does not however go far enough. The voters have passed their judgement on it and other matters and said they want more, faster.
So what can he do, given the constraints of Coalition? One thing UKIP supporters refuse to accept is that the UK voters chose an EU federalist inclined Parliament in 2010. It may well be the case that such thought was not uppermost in their mind when they voted, but that was the result of all the combined choices. It certainly means that in 2010 voters were not primarily concerned to change our relationship with the EU. It is only more recently that the extent of the EU’s powers and the damage of its policies has come to preoccupy more voters minds. It is because neither Labour nor the Lib Dems will vote for a referendum or for a renegotiation at the moment that Mr Cameron has had to promise to do all this if he wins the next General Election.
Today there is a new mood which will affect Labour as well as the Conservatives. Sensible Labour representatives have already said UKIP voting is an issue for them as well. I think in this new climate Parliament could approve an immediate referendum on the issue of whether the government should go to Brussels and negotiate a new much looser relationship where we are not governed by Europe. I would support a Bill which allowed us to ask the public “Do you want the UK government to negotiate a new relationship with the EU based on free trade and political co-operation?”
It may be that the Lib Dems, a principled pro EU party, would wish to oppose even this. So be it. The Conservatives could launch it from the backbenches, as long as Conservative Ministers could vote for it, and vote for the time it needs to pass it. In this climate I would be amazed if the Labour party wished to oppose it, given the mood of the country and the urgency of the issues involved.
Some say, why do we need to do this? Isn’t it clear that the UK public want the government to do this. The answer is sadly “No”, it is not clear enough to politicians. That is why they have not done this so far. More importantly, assuming it is the will of the big majority of the UK voters that we need a different relationship with the EU, our Prime Minister armed with such a mandate would be taken much more seriously in Brussels when demanding change.
UKIP will doubtless complain that this is not the same as an IN/Out referendum now. They will say this is delay or obfuscation. On the contrary. It is a necessary process the country has to go on. In or out of the current EU, we need trade arrangements, pipeline agreements, interconnector deals, transport permissions, extradition treaties and the rest. It all takes negotiation.
They will also say that the EU will not negotiate a new deal for the UK. I say if the Prime Minister had the backing of the UK people for such a task, they would have to. If by any chance UKIP were right and they still would not negotiate, then it would presumably result in the UK voters voting to leave the EU in the subsequent referendum on the non deal negotiated.
This will not appeal to the purists in UKIP who just think Parliament should vote to leave the EU immediately. I have to tell them we are still a very long way off that day. After all, the bottom line in South Shields was another federalist MP was returned to this federalist Parliament. We need to settle the matter of Europe now, for the sake of our liberty and prosperity. The Mandate referendum harnesses the energy and anger of the UK electors positively to that task.
Published in conjunction with a shorter version of this piece in The Sunday Times 3 Thomas More Square