David Cameron should attempt to avoid table-banging and demand the unlimited repatriation of powers from Europe in a forthcoming speech, according to the head of a new cross-party organisation launched this year. Whatever the British prime minister says, however, the UK is gearing up for a campaign on some form of referendum on its relationship with Europe, Peter Wilding tells EURACTIV.
Peter Wilding is the director of the Centre for British Influence through Europe (CBIE). He is the former head of media for the Conservative party in the European Parliament, and spoke to EURACTIV’s Jeremy Fleming. Read a related news article here.
Does your group replace or represent existing pro-European groups?
The fundamental aim is not to replace existing groups but to act as an umbrella organisation. The idea of the Centre is to bring together pro-engagement groups in different sectors: in politics, the media, business, academia, policy and diplomacy. It is a cross-party and non-party organisation.
Andrew Duff, the Liberal Democrat MEP and head of the Union of European Federalists, recently told the BBC that the UK should consider "associate member" status of a more strongly integrated Europe. Do you agree?
We are ‘eurorealists’ and as such are neither ‘europhile’ nor ‘europhobic’. We will not endorse federalist solutions – for which Andrew Duff is a well-known advocate. At the same time we think that the suggestion that the UK can detach itself from Europe in some kind of Swiss-style solution is also impractical. We do not believe in extreme solutions on either side of the debate.
David Cameron is set to give a major speech on Britain's relationship with Europe in mid-January. What do you think will be the extent of the repatriation requests that Cameron will make in the speech?
The Fresh Start group, under the leadership of Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom, has been examining 11 sectors (including trade, justice and immigration) in which such requests might be made; a smorgasbord of repatriatible issues. It is plain as day that the problem with the Conservative party is that they feel that by demanding repatriation on some or all these areas they will gain leverage in negotiations. Cameron knows he cannot demand a huge list, though he is sympathetic to social and employment laws, such as the Working Time Directive, being repatriated.
What is the significance of the speech?
Cameron has two options: he can demand repatriation in several policy areas for the UK and the UK alone. This may please his backbenchers but has no practical chance of success. On the other hand Angela Merkel might be prepared to give him some room for manoeuvre. How much room is unclear, but clearly there has been a rapprochement between Britain and Germany over the past couple of months.
What does this mean in practical terms?
Here is a possibility for a second option. In his speech, Cameron could demand limited repatriations, but say that in a future treaty change, the powers of the EU institutions should be reviewed. I understand that the Germans are very keen to give the Council stronger powers against the Commission, and to give national parliaments more of a stake in the decision-making of the European Parliament. So there is room for some accommodation with the German position. Secondly Cameron should not be viewed as being alone in seeking to repatriate policies because whilst nobody has put their head above the parapet, I understand that some high-placed officials have been toying with the idea of devolving some issues back to member states in order to free up manpower required as a result of the eurocrisis. The really important issue about the speech will be what tone Cameron strikes.
Do you think that those close to Cameron in formulating this speech are aware of these options?
I am doing my level best for Downing Street to be aware of them: that they have the option of either advancing UK leadership or simply banging the table in a futile gesture. Cameron’s problem is that “it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grease”, the loudest MPs are often europhobes, but there are plenty of eurorealists.
Do you think Cameron is likely to promise a referendum?
The referendum question seems to me to be a straightforward Harold Wilson-style referendum strategy: in other words, to discuss re-negotiation of the UK position at a later stage and then to confirm that afterwards by referendum, possibly also offering voters a separate choice to leave the EU.
A referendum campaign will differ from the 1975 referendum clearly, but do you agree that it will focus on the youth vote, as the United Kingdom Independence Party has indicated it intends to do this?
[UKIP leader] Nigel Farage is right, because his natural constituency is among 45- to 85-year-olds. The 18- to 44-year-olds are more pro-European or undecided, so clearly the youth vote will be critical in any campaign.