Cridland rejects possibility of Norwegian-style deal as Tories show divisions over bill
The head of Britain’s most powerful employers’ organisation today issues a blunt warning about the risks of quitting the European Union after the Conservative party signalled the beginning of a drawn-out parliamentary battle over plans for an in-out referendum by 2017.
John Cridland, the director general of the CBI, says the dispute over the timing of a referendum was a diversion and scoffed at suggestions that Britain could have an arms-length relationship with the EU similar to Norway’s or Switzerland’s.
In a strongly worded article for the Guardian that forms the basis of a speech later today, Cridland says: “This week’s political demands for a bill to underpin the prime minister’s promise of an EU referendum have been a distraction from securing growth and jobs, which have to be the UK’s top priority.”
After coming top of the private member’s ballot, the Tory MP James Wharton vowed to champion the bill that will attempt to mandate the government to hold a referendum by 2017. Downing Street said Tory MPs would be instructed by their whips to vote for the bill.
Wharton’s bill will receive its first reading in the Commons on 19 June. The first slot for a private member’s bill debate in the Commons is 5 July and Wharton has said he has already been in discussions with government whips to take up the bill prepared by his party earlier this week.
The move follows a show of strength by Tory Eurosceptics on Wednesday night in a vote on an amendment on the Queen’s speech that regretted the absence of an in-out EU referendum bill in the government’s legislative programme. Dissenting Conservative MPs numbered 114, although Cameron’s aides insisted the vote was not a blow to his authority because he had allowed a free vote and was relaxed about the outcome.
David Cameron, who has not spoken to Wharton about the bill, “intends to give it the full support of the Conservative party,” a Downing Street spokesman said.
The developments have caused consternation in Europe, with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, entering the row directly for the first time, saying she would appeal to Britain to stay in the EU. Merkel told Germany’s WDR television in Berlin that she views the UK as an “important member of the EU” and will lobby “our British friends to stay in the bloc”.
She said she follows the UK political debate on relations with the rest of the EU, Bloomberg.com reported.
She said she saw the forthcoming debate in the UK parliament “as being about procedural questions right now. For my part, I will tell my British friends again and again that it’s good for you and it’s good for us [if the UK stays in the EU].”
Dissent outside Westminster is growing. Cridland took the unusual step of speaking publicly on an issue that divides the CBI, saying: “The recent tussle presents an inward-looking picture of British politics to the outside. For those in the business world, it feels like a diversion from what we should be doing in Europe which is restoring growth, through trade deals, and championing the reforms that we want to make all of Europe more competitive.”
He added: “Let’s be clear. Being a member of a reformed EU is the best way to preserve market access.”
The CBI leader rejected claims that Britain could leave the EU but keep some of the benefits of membership. “There are some who say that we could retain access to the single market without being a member of the EU; that the UK could withdraw and have a relationship with the EU more akin to Norway’s or Switzerland’s. I’d urge them to really look at the detail.”
Cridland said Britain would never accept Norway’s status as a member of the European Economic Area but not part of the EU. That meant Norway “still pays the bills and follows the rules but has much lower influence on EU decision-making than if it had a seat at the table”.
In the Commons, the shadow leader of the house, Angela Eagle, said the Tories had “descended into chaos on Europe, and the bill was ‘entirely spurious’ and did not include a implementation clause or money resolution”.
The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader, Simon Hughes, accused the Tories of “obsessing about Europe”.
James Wharton: profile of the eurosceptics’ darling
By the lucky dip of a ballot, James Wharton, MP for Stockton South, was chosen to table the Tory party-devised bill to guarantee an in-out referendum by 2017, and thus became the poster boy of the Tory Eurosceptics.
At 29, Wharton is one of the youngest current MPs and the youngest Tory MP. When he took his seat in the 2010 election at the age of 26, he had a majority of just 332 over Labour. A self-proclaimed Eurosceptic, he was one of 53 Tories who voted against the government to call for a cut in the EU budget from 2014. Wharton He once questioned whether too much time was spent debating Europe, saying most people didn’t connect with the debate, or spent their every waking hour thinking about Europe.
Yesterday he was hoping the bill would lay the issue to rest. “What I hope is that once we have brought this forward and MPs of all political colours will get a chance to vote on it in parliament, hopefully, it will become legislation, but we will see, but we can then put the issue to rest,” he told The World at One.
“Because parliament will have had its say, and on a clear bill which sets out a timetable and a road back to referendum, after a period of renegotiation and that would be an in/out referendum, and we can then, of course, focus on all of the other issues that matter.”