Cameron’s EU referendum ‘timebomb’ could undermine UK position say lords
Former cabinet secretary Lord Armstrong says PM should follow Thatcher’s example by being patient in EU negotiations.
David Cameron’s plans to detonate a referendum “timebomb” by 2017 could undermine Britain’s standing in the EU, Margaret Thatcher’s former cabinet secretary has warned.
As pro-European grandees lined up to denounce Downing Street’s plans to hold an in-out referendum on Britain’s EU membership by 2017 regardless of whether member states accept the proposals, Lord Armstrong called on the prime minister to follow the example of Thatcher, who was a patient negotiator.
Armstrong, who also served as private secretary to Harold Wilson during the run-up to the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EEC, was one of a series of peers who criticised No 10’s plans to embark on a two-year renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership terms if Cameron wins the 2015 general election. This would then be followed by a referendum by the end of 2017 when Britain is due to hold the rotating presidency of the EU. Peers rounded on Downing Street on the first day’s debate in the House of Lords on a private member’s bill that would pave the way for a referendum by 2017. The bill received strong support in the Commons after most Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs, whose parties both oppose a referendum on the prime minister’s timetable, declined to support the measure.
Labour and Lib Dem peers have been instructed by their respective front benches to kill off the bill in the Lords without actually voting it down because Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are nervous about accusations that they want to deny the public a vote. Peers opposed to the bill are planning to sabotage the measure by talking it out or by tabling amendments that would sow divisions in the Commons when the bill returns to MPs.
Lord Hannay, a former UK ambassador to the EU who is expected to take the lead in tabling amendments to the bill, indicated that peers were likely to ensure that the provisions of the bill would be nullified unless MPs and peers voted in favour of its measures after the next election.
Hannay also indicated that the bill will be amended to include new wording in the referendum question to ask voters whether Britain should “remain” in the EU. Under the bill drawn up by the Tory backbencher James Wharton voters would be asked whether Britain should “be” in the EU, prompting the electoral commission to say this may raise doubts about whether Britain is currently a member.
Tory sources said they would ensure that a vote is engineered by the end of February – the date by which the bill must return to the Commons if it is to enter law by the time of the Queen’s speech – to ensure the Lib Dems cannot block the bill. One source said: “There will be a vote to flush out those in favour and those against to ensure that Labour and the Lib Dems cannot kill the bill without fingerprints.”
But Armstrong said: “The prime minister is not likely to be assisted in his negotiations if he goes into them with a timebomb in his briefcase which he says that he must detonate if he does not get the result he wants by a fixed date in 2017. He would do better to take a leaf out of the book of Mrs Thatcher. When she wanted to get a satisfactory outcome on the British rebate, she did not threaten her partners with an ‘in or out’ referendum if she did not get her way by a certain date. It took her five years to get an outcome which she was prepared to accept, but she stayed in there until she got what she wanted or, at least, what she was prepared to accept.”
The bill cleared its first hurdle in the Lords – and will now be considered by peers at committee stage – after it was given an unopposed second reading following a seven-hour debate.
Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, another former UK ambassador to the EU, said No 10 was “plum wrong” to hold the referendum in 2017 – the year of the next French presidential and German federal elections.
But Tory sources said that 2015-17 provided the best window for renegotiations because the new German coalition agreement committed the CDU-SPD government to amending the Lisbon treaty to underpin new governance arrangements for the euro. The prime minister aims to use a treaty renegotiation, which would have to be approved by all member states, to table his demands.
Lord Liddle, Tony Blair’s former Europe adviser, who spoke for Labour, said the party supported the 2011 government act which would trigger a referendum if further UK sovereignty was transferred to Brussels. But he said Labour was opposed to a referendum on Cameron’s timetable.
Liddle told peers: “The prime minister … has chosen, as this bill sets out, the end of 2017 as the end date for a UK referendum without the slightest idea of what by then he will have tried to negotiate, whether there is any prospect of our partners playing ball with such a renegotiation, whether a new treaty is necessary as part of that and what he would judge to be an acceptable outcome. The truth is that he is playing Russian roulette with the British economic recovery.”
Lord Dobbs, writer of the House of Cards political thrillers, who is piloting the bill through the lords for the Tories, told peers: “A referendum is about democracy. It is not about being anti-European or pro-European; it is about allowing people to decide their own future. It will be a brave man who denies them that choice, and an even braver unelected peer.”
The debate came after Labour indicated a tougher approach to the EU when the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna, called for a change to one of the founding principles of the EU – freedom of movement – to be introduced to prevent EU citizens travelling to Britain in search of a job. As a leading European commissioner accused the British government of peddling myths about migrants, Umunna said highly skilled EU citizens should be banned from taking low-skilled jobs in Britain.
Speaking on BBC1’s Question Time on Thursday, he said: “What people intended when they built the EU in the first instance is that people who either had a job or had the skills to get a job would move around the EU. The problem we have at the moment is that you had during our time in office – and this was where we did make a mistake – high-skilled people coming from other countries to do low-skilled jobs here.”
Umunna’s intervention came after Viviane Reding, vice-president of the European commission in charge of justice, accused British ministers of telling untruths about the number of EU citizens claiming benefits in the UK. In a webchat, the Luxembourg commissioner said: “Most of the things which are told to the people in Great Britain are myths, have nothing to do with reality.”