EU Referendum

Such a sickening betrayal of Britain: QUENTIN LETTS rejoiced when Cameron promised a referendum and a radically reformed relationship with the EU – but the charade since and the gutlessness of careerist ministers make his blood boil

REYKJAVIK, Bratislava, Riga, Berlin, Sofia, Schloss Elmau, Valletta, Milan: the late Poet Laureate John Betjeman could have turned such a list into verse.

‘Lisbon, Ljubljana — all stations to Crewe — to Paris and Brussels, Madrid, too, we flew’. Something like that, perhaps.

Those destinations, with the exception of Crewe, have been visited in recent weeks by David Cameron as he has gone about his so-called EU renegotiation.

Quentin Letts rejoiced when David Cameron, pictured, promised a radically reformed relationship with the EU

 It is a good thing that peak-capped officials no longer stamp travel documents at EU borders (if such borders can even be said to exist these days) or our Prime Minister would be needing a new passport.

Mr Cameron’s physical stamina is not in doubt. Ditto his ability to remember the names of all the obscure foreign leaders he has feted.

Beside genuine big-hitters Merkel and Hollande there has been a young Estonian called Taavi Roivas, Poland’s Beata Szydlo — pronunciation lessons for the Downing Street team before that encounter? — and Croatia’s Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Don’t try that one after lunch, Prime Minister.

 I have seen Mr Cameron at such ‘bilaterals’ and he brims with enthusiasm, leaping out of his motor car and entering EU flag-bedecked buildings double-quick. A flash of teeth. Pop of camera bulbs. Off they scurry for secret talks.

Only yesterday he was back in Brussels to meet the European Commission’s bibulous Jean-Claude Juncker.

He declared that current proposals from Brussels on his reform agenda are ‘not good enough’, but insisted we are ‘making progress’.

The Prime Minister admitted there was still ‘very hard work’ ahead to win a deal aimed at loosening ties with Brussels ahead of the referendum.

He declined to comment on whether he was still on schedule for an agreement on EU reforms and a public vote on Britain’s future within the bloc in the summer.

‘That depends what happens in February,’ he said. ‘If the deal is good enough I’ll take it; if it’s not, I won’t.’

He added: ‘We’ve made some progress today — it’s not enough; it’s going to be hard work.’

Mr Cameron is elected premier of some 70 million souls. Britain is a nuclear military power, a member of the UN Security Council, moral fount of the Commonwealth, the fifth biggest economy in the world. M Juncker was once leader of Luxembourg — roughly the size of Bristol.

No. 10’s upbeat spin yesterday was that ‘things are coming to a head’. The BBC said: ‘Britain is closing in on a deal.’ Yes, but is that a deal for the British people or for the political convenience of our theatrical Prime Minister? Is it really the British people who need this deal?

Or is it designed to benefit our deeply troubled European Union partners? The brutal fact — and they know it — is that if Britain left the EU, it would be a body blow to Brussels.

Three years ago, Mr Cameron was forced to offer British voters an ‘in or out’ say on the EU.

His Tories were bleeding support to Nigel Farage’s Ukip at the time. He saw that a Conservative manifesto pledge to hold a referendum would tempt some Ukip supporters to vote Tory in the general election in May 2015.

He was right. They did.

David Cameron: ‘No EU deal done but we are making progress’

Three years ago Tory ministers were 'bleeding' to support the Ukip party run by Nigel Farage, pictured

   Nigel Farage: ‘Only by leaving the EU can we control our borders’

When he agreed to the referendum, he perhaps suspected there was little chance he would win the election and ever have to honour his promise.

But success brings its own dilemmas. Having won his unexpected majority, Mr Cameron is stuck with the referendum.

When he made his 2013 announcement about the referendum, I was uncertain how I would vote in it. I was open to persuasion and felt it was wonderful that, finally, the British people were to be offered a say. Like most of today’s electorate, I am too young to have voted in the sole previous referendum on Europe, in 1975.

Back then, it was to decide whether or not to remain in what was merely a free-trading bloc, the ‘Common Market’.

Our forthcoming referendum, by contrast, could not be more fundamental. It effectively asks: what kind of people do we British wish to be in the future?

The EU costs us billions of pounds a year and affects our trade, security, legal system, defence, welfare and most other aspects of public administration.

In some areas, such as pollution control, the EU is a force for virtue. In others, such as bureaucratic overload, it is a plain nuisance.

‘Europe’ also affects our civic values, our notion of government (how big we expect officialdom to be) and our national identity.

After all, a country that loses control of its borders will soon lose its ability to decide who joins its citizenry.

If millions — and that number is not fanciful — of incomers with different philosophies are allowed into the UK through open borders, what will happen to that national identity?

This last aspect is particularly important for me. I am an Anglican churchgoer. Does the EU, which is in some ways a continuation of the Holy Roman Empire, buttress Western Christianity against militant Islam? Or do its secularist, egalitarian creeds weaken our religious heritage and make us easy meat for militant Islamists?

Back in 2013, as I sat in a City of London audience listening to Mr Cameron make his referendum announcement, I thought I was ‘on the same page’ — as politicians say.

Prime Minister David Cameron is welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncke

 He spoke warmly about the EU’s potential as a trade bloc, yet he deplored its tendency to interfere by proposing things such as the working time directive (which tries to limit the working week to 48 hours). Hear, hear!

He claimed to be irked by Brussels’ expansionism, its almost daily assault, directive by petty directive, on our sovereignty.

But he remained open to the idea of European cooperation on the world stage. He did seem genuinely to want to re-set the principles of our EU membership.

What did I expect that to mean? At very least, I thought Britain would be allowed to set our own immigration and welfare rules.

I presumed British lawmakers would be allowed to set our tax rates (VAT on tampons, for instance, which at present our Government wants to scrap but is not allowed to under EU law).

I hoped our MPs would have control of decisions affecting employment and the City about how much state support to give industry. EU limits on such state-aid have recently destroyed large parts of our steel industry.

Sense needed knocking into lunatic European agriculture and fishing rules, the latter so immoral that they led to freshly-caught fish being thrown back into the sea, dead. Smaller but symbolic matters: I wanted our MPs to decide whether or not prisoners should have a vote.

I wanted us no longer to be forced to have EU emblems on our car number-plates, atop public buildings and on passports.

I wanted our EU membership fees sharply reduced. And should the European Parliament not be forced to close its scandalously wasteful chamber in Strasbourg?

I wanted an EU that was not run by a small, unaccountable, unelected elite — a body so corrupt that its finances have not been signed off by accountants for years.

Those were my thoughts that day back in 2013 when David Cameron announced a referendum.

I found it exciting. If we could attain such reforms, I could see the EU idea being revived not just in Britain but in its other nation states, currently so sclerotic with social and industrial decay.

That would be good for our country and for our shared European civilisation.

As the father of three children, and therefore someone with an emotional investment in the second part of the 21st century, I could see myself happily voting ‘yes’ for such an EU.

Nick Robinson, then political editor of the BBC, was the first journalist to ask a question to Mr Cameron that day in 2013. Clever man, that Robinson.

BBC journalist Nick Robinson queried Mr Cameron’s willingness to walk away from EU negotiations in 2013

He did not raise a nerdy point of detail. He queried Mr Cameron’s willingness to walk away from negotiations.

It was a telling point. Without being ready to do that, Mr Cameron would not secure those reforms. As any poker player knows, unless the other side believed he was prepared to back up his threat — in Britain’s case, to leave the EU — it would call his bluff.

Mr Cameron, laughing, told Nick Robinson: ‘Who goes into a negotiation hoping and expecting to fail?’

While he chuckled and moved to the next questioner, I comforted myself that when push came to shove, Downing Street officials would prove more canny.

When haggling with a knick-knack vendor in the tourist souks of North Africa, you make your first offer a low one. You play hard to get.

If the merchant does not lower his price, you walk out of the shop. Eventually, he will run after you. Is that not how negotiating works? Would our ‘Rolls-Royce’ civil servants not know that?

Naïve schmuck that I am, I excused Mr Cameron’s upbeat tone that day. It sounded more attractive than the baleful noises coming from the Eurosceptics.

Mr Cameron’s sunny disposition has done wonders for the Tories’ electoral fortunes since he became their leader in 2005. He is good at putting on a genial face. There is a lot to be said for optimism.

Since then, alas, Nick Robinson’s scepticism has been shown to be all too justified.

Despite all the foreign summits, all the Air Miles, it has become apparent that Mr Cameron went into the EU negotiations with flimsy demands. There seems to have been almost nothing behind the smiles.

Although occasionally biting on his lower lip and muttering ‘I rule nothing out’, Mr Cameron has always sounded far more convincing when saying — as he should never have done — that he hoped we would remain in the EU.

OK, he might think that, but he was crazy to admit it! His renegotiation requests at all those summits were amorphous, opaque, hard for the voter to comprehend.

He sought a target on competitiveness. He chased tweaks to dry sub-clauses on economic governance. He spoke of fresh nuances to the phrase ‘ever-closer union’.

The one area where something more definite was sought, on immigration and benefit rules, was soon diluted.

It now seems to have resulted in a woolly metaphor, with EU officials deigning to offer a temporary ‘brake’ on our obligations.

This ‘brake’ (which we will not be allowed to operate ourselves!) may allow us, sometimes, to hold back benefits from immigrants for four years. Maybe. And those benefits may have to be denied to some indigenous Britons.

I am afraid the bitterest truth is that our Prime Minister has proved a terrible pushover — so much so that we must question if he ever was serious in the first place about securing changes to our EU membership.

He seems to have been more interested in occupying the short-term centre ground of Westminster politics.

The maddening thing is that, with Labour so weak, he never had a better moment to grab his destiny and demand profound changes from Brussels. Meanwhile, the tone of the debate altered.

The foreboding noises, formerly evident on the Ukippy side of the argument, now emanate from the pro-EU camp.

The ‘Remain’ camp, dabbling in the politics of fear, has issued blood-curdling warnings about the consequences of withdrawal from the European project.

It is ‘Remain’ who scowl and shout. By contrast, those on the ‘Leave’ side seem to be more genial and relaxed — and liberal.

William Hague has not been the same man since he entered the Foreign Office in 2010, writes Quentin Letts

 Already we are hearing implausible warnings from ‘Remain’ zealots about job losses. We are being told that everything from climate-change control to Welsh economic prosperity to NHS staffing levels — even bird-life, for heaven’s sake — will be doomed unless we stay in the EU.

Energy Secretary Amber Rudd disingenuously claimed that leaving would have ‘unknown’ consequences for our energy security and could harm the interests of UK families.

This is like having innumerable hillsides of boys crying ‘wolf!’.

Meanwhile, Europe staggers from disaster to disaster, its citadels ablaze from Islamist bombs, its border-posts flattened by rampaging migrants, its economies — with dreadful youth unemployment — in a state of paralysis.

Mr Cameron is being ruthless in gagging Cabinet colleagues who might be tempted to campaign for a ‘Leave’ vote. Officially, he says ministers have leeway to vote as they wish, but in reality the only ones allowed to talk about the EU are those who support ‘Remain’.

The most unedifying sight has been the parade of former Eurosceptics coming out to declare a sudden admiration for Brussels.

They have sounded like those war-zone hostages with knives held to their necks making false confessions.

William Hague, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, backbencher Nick Herbert and Sir Eric Pickles have caved in.

The same Hague, as Tory leader in 2001, ran hard on Euroscepticsm, saying that year’s general election was the ‘last chance to save the pound’. He has not been the same man since he entered the Foreign Office in 2010.

We are told that Michael Gove (who, in 2013 said ‘we could contemplate [leaving], there would be certain advantages’) and Boris Johnson (only last August he said: ‘Would London flourish outside [the EU]? Yes, of course it would’) will also soon be joining the Remain

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