On a pedestal: Anti-EU campaigners like Nigel Farage can be heard
It was just another Paris lunch. The editor of the Nouvel Observateur, and other media grandes fromages, at their local eatery opposite the Paris Bourse. David Cameron had just made his speech looking us all in the eye and promising an In/Out referendum. Prime ministers have ruminated about Europe in the past but this was the first time one had used In/Out language. In addition he gave a precise date for the referendum (by the end of 2017) to follow very imprecise negotiations to recast Britain's relationship with the EU in a way Mr Cameron and his Eurosceptic party could endorse.
Unlike the wriggle room Tony Blair and then David Cameron left themselves over the Constitutional and Lisbon treaties it is hard to see how such a solemnly delivered promise of a plebiscite can be swerved around. The Liberal Democrats have endorsed it — just as Charles Kennedy's announcement that he would vote with Tories in favour of a referendum on the EU Constitution forced Tony Blair's hand in 2004. Then I was the last minister to hold out in the Foreign Office where Jack Straw, Mike O'Brien and even Bill Rammell, more Europhile even than me but with a highly marginal seat to defend, had been moaning about doorstep demands for a referendum at our ministerial meetings for months before Blair caved in. By spring 2004, the combination of Tories, Lib Dems and Labour MPs unable to face down the clamour for a referendum in the Eurosceptic press, meant that Blair had no choice but to concede one.
The referendum appetite grows with feeding. David Cameron and his Foreign Secretary William Hague thought they could pacify the referendistas with the offer of an eccentric Bill that promised a referendum if ever there was a "significant transfer" of sovereignty to Brussels. Note the FCO bill drafters' weasel word "significant". It would be up to ministers to decide if any future treaty meant a significant shift in power to Europe. If they decided it wasn't significant then no referendum would be necessary. (Calls for this referendum Bill to cover a future treaty allowing Turkey to join were dismissed. The EU and Britain would change out of all recognition if 80 million Anatolian Muslims were allowed to come and live in Britain, but William Hague clings to the one British bit of EU policy which sounds progressive — the admission of Turkey to full EU membership.)
But far from the referendum Bill disposing of the problem all it did was whet the appetite of UKIP and anti-EU Conservatives as they demanded the real thing. Mr Cameron duly conceded in January. His decision has fundamentally altered the terms of trade about Britain's membership of Europe and made UK withdrawal, if not quite certain, extremely probable. The pro-European Ed Miliband sensibly refuses to reveal his hand on a referendum and told a gathering of pro-EU London elites (though to be fair Andrew Neil was there) at the German Embassy on June 10 that Labour was not in favour of an In/Out referendum now.
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