David Cameron is presenting all the wrong arguments for staying in the EU

His proposed sovereignty law makes it harder for Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to back the ‘in’ campaign

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

13 February 2016

9:00 AM

It is normally in the final, frantic days of a campaign that a multitude of dubious claims are made. But when it comes to the EU referendum, this has begun before the date of the vote has even been set.

We’re told that anti-terrorism measures would be damaged by a British exit from the European Union, that migrant camps would sprout up in the garden of England and Six Nations rugby would never be the same again. The strangest claim of all isn’t Sir Charles Powell’s clairvoyant suggestion that Margaret Thatcher would vote to stay in, but David Cameron’s insistence that he would join the EU right now.

The Prime Minister’s position is odd because the ‘in’ side’s strongest arguments focus on the disruption Brexit would cause the UK. It is not clear how quickly terms could be agreed with the EU or how fast Britain could strike trade deals with other countries.

Last Friday, at a dinner in Brussels, Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, secretary general of the European Council, told me that a British exit could take five to ten years to negotiate and ratify. The terms of Article 50 suggest it would take Britain at least two years to wrestle free. There is even talk that Britain’s departure might need to be approved by -referendums in other countries. This -warning from Tranholm-Mikkelsen, one of EC president Donald Tusk’s most senior officials, is worth noting because he has long been seen as sympathetic to Britain’s concerns.

The ‘out’ campaign would counter that Britain would not invoke Article 50 until it was ready. But senior figures in the Foreign Office believe there is a danger that Article 50 could be invoked by the rest of the EU in the event of an ‘out’ vote regardless of the British government’s -position. One senior government minister warns that exit terms would be imposed upon us ‘without our even being in the room’.

If Britain quit the EU, it would no longer be party to the 53 trade deals that Brussels has negotiated with the rest of the world. Renegotiating would pose logistical problems, especially as the civil service no longer has any trade negotiators. Since 1973, trade became an EU competence. Britain hasn’t struck a solo agreement since.

The United States likes to negotiate its trade agreements consecutively. If Washington adhered to this, Britain would have to wait until talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment partnership had been settled before any deal could be done.

Would the United States make an exception for the UK, which remained one of its most important military and strategic allies? One figure involved in the ‘out’ campaign suggests Britain could sign a carbon copy of every trade agreement the EU currently has. It is, however, hard to dispute that for the first few years following a British exit from the European Union we’d be in choppy waters.

But this is not the argument David Cameron is making. Instead, he tries to sell the merits of his proposed deal with the EU and the sovereignty law that Oliver Letwin is trying to fashion. The extra assurance on sovereignty was meant to help bind both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to the ‘in’ camp. Actually, it risks making it more difficult for either to support the Prime Minister’s position.

Martin Howe, the respected QC who Cameron appointed to the Commission on a Bill of Rights in the last parliament, has already explained that this sovereignty law would be essentially meaningless because parliament is sovereign now. But if Parliament passed a law that contradicted EU law, the European Court of Justice would find that Britain was in breach of the treaties and issue a fine. Britain would then have to choose between backing down or leaving the European Union.

Howe does not think a German-style constitutional court, which Cameron has said he is keen on, would solve the sovereignty problem either. Unlike most countries, Britain has no written constitution. It is hard to dismiss Howe’s views, since he is one of the lawyers the government has consulted to try to thread its legal needle.

Cameron seems determined to sell -Britain’s EU membership as guaranteeing our national security. This week, he warned that anti-terror cooperation would be weakened if Britain were no longer a member. It’s hard to see why, given that it is clearly in the -interests of all the countries involved.

The EU might very well be angry if -Britain voted to leave, and might want to ensure our exit would be neither quick nor painless. But no EU country — and particularly not France, which was the victim of six successful terrorist attacks last year — would opt to abandon arrangements that might help prevent future atrocities.

The security argument does not sit well with the fact that the European Court of Justice, the European Union’s highest court, is blocking the extradition of Abu Hamza’s daughter-in-law. She is a Moroccan -national, and was convicted of attempting to smuggle a mobile phone Sim card into -Belmarsh, Britain’s highest-security prison. The continued presence of such people is hardly conducive to our national security, yet it is forced on us — against the will of the British government

In the debate over the EU, Cameron wants to cast himself as a pragmatist. He presents himself as a man who has conducted a dispassionate analysis and decided it is, on balance, worth staying in. He argues that the benefits we’d accrue from leaving are not worth the turmoil and uncertainty that Brexit would involve. But when he suggests that he would choose to join the EU even if Britain were not already a member, he undercuts his own most powerful argument.

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  • Rik

    I never thought in my lifetime i would ever see a politician more mendacious,duplicitous,arrogant and self serving than Blair,sadly i was wrong Cameron outdoes him in every way,truly he is the heir to Blair.

    • St Louis

      How right you are. Smart suit, good breeding, bit of timely self deprecation and humour, shiny face, and Bob’s your uncle, a hero for the Times and the Toadygraph groups. Oh, and no principles or beliefs of any sort, thank you.

      • aristophanes

        Cameron is a chameleon – he takes on the principles and beliefs of those near him for the moment.

    • Roger Hudson

      You didn’t know Heath.

  • flaxensaxon

    If you divide the voting blocks into thirds. A third for both In and Out, and a third don’t know. The Don’t Knows become the most powerful voting block and will decide the outcome of the referendum. Cameron’s strategy seems to be to keep spreading fear and uncertainty to keep the Don’t Knows not knowing, hoping they’ll decide to stick with the devil they know and vote for the status quo.

    • Jacques Strap

      thats assuming everyone turns out….

  • FrankS2

    “…especially as the civil service no longer has any trade negotiators…”
    So when the EU negotiates trading agreements, Britain has no voice at all?

    • Robbydot1

      Essentially, no. We are often blocked from the room, don’t know why.

    • ScepticSid

      External Trade is one of 32 areas of competence the UK has signed away to Brussels:


      Therefore, although notionaly a member of the WTO the UK is represented by the EU and subsequently only has 1/28th in pre WTO meetings in Brussels:

      “While the member states coordinate their position in Brussels and Geneva, the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — alone speaks for the EU and its members at almost all WTO meetings and in almost all WTO affairs. For this reason, in most issues, WTO materials refer to the “EU” (or previously the legally-official “EC”)”


      • FrankS2

        Yes I realise “we” signed it away – but presumably “we” are one of the member states
        who co-ordinate their position in Brussels, and as such have our civil servants speaking for us.
        Basically, I was sceptical about the writer’s inference that the Civil Service lacked the know-how to negotiate trade deals. And even if they don’t, sure we could recruit them!

    • Roger Hudson

      ‘Yes !’, the simple answer that shows the UK no longer controls it’s own trade.

  • aristophanes

    ‘Last Friday, at a dinner in Brussels, Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, secretary general of the European Council, told me that a British exit could take five to ten years to negotiate and ratify.’

    I am told that it is difficult to leave the mafia.

    • Frank

      This is quite funny. You serve notice under article 50, stop the direct debit and start shipping out all the illegals.

      • Roger Hudson

        Come on Speccie, it’s sensible to delete replies to deleted comments as they make no sense.

  • Bill Sticker

    It doesn’t matter if were in the room or not as the most glaring truth arising from Mr Cameron’s frantic visits to the EU is the fact of the UKs utter weakness within it. We have very few friends or allies and Mr Cameron is treated with outright contempt or like a wasp at a picnic. The flow of trade where the E U has more to lose by becoming belligerent in the face of our peoples expressed will to quit this sinking madhouse should sharpen the survival instincts in Brussels or wherever it is power resides over there. As to the great deal which Mr Cameron’s juncketing has secured he has to go cap in hand to beg them if he has permission to impose his 4 year withholding of benefits and the same EU retains the right to end the emergency as and when IT sees fit. If that wasn’t bad enough the improved version pledges signatories to work towards adopting the euro!

    How can Cameron still recommend a yes vote with a straight face I ask you!!!

  • WFC

    “There is even talk that Britain’s departure might need to be approved by -referendums in other countries.”

    By who? Somebody in a tin foil hat?

    • Roger Hudson

      By Schultz, wake up there at the back.

  • Jack Rocks

    it would no longer be party to the 53 trade deals that Brussels has negotiated with the rest of the world.

    Imagine these arguments being made by those in favour of keeping the USSR together? There are plenty of countries who’d love to do deals with the UK without having to placate every little French farmer in the process.

  • jeffersonian

    How anyone takes Cameron seriously on the EU is a baffling mystery. His case for remaining is so thread-bare and full of holes it resembles a Swiss cheese.

  • Frank

    James, does anyone really need any arguments to cut themselves free from a dead corpse?
    The EU in its current format is kaput. If Britain leaves, the EU will fall apart and can be re-built without the French obsession on “ever-closer union”.
    I suspect that if Britain votes to leave, but is not shot of the EU after the 2 year notice period under Article 50, then it may turn quite ugly.
    Merkel is clearly toast, as is Hollande, so your tedious arguments that Britain should stay to avoid nasty scenes with our fellow europeans is absurd.

  • Richard N

    A British Prime Minister is doing everything possible to keep Britain being ruled by Germany, via its EU vehicle.

    The EU rules Britain – even the slowest person has been able to see that, seeing the vapid EU stooge Cameron being unable to even tinker with welfare rules without the EU’s consent.

    If you can’t even control your country’s welfare arrangements without outside permission, then you are certainly not remotely an independent country.

    And Germany controls the EU: that is unquestionable, too.

    Therefore, Germany controls the UK. Therefore, Cameron, in seeking to prevent Britain regaining its independence, is not working for Britain – but is working for Germany.

    • Roger Hudson

      Fine, Germany controls the continent and we stand aside, great, but we could have had that in 1914 and not lost so much in the 1914-1990 ‘Great European civil war’.

  • marvin

    If the EU is likely to fall apart because of the UK exiting then it just goes to prove how weak its structure is and how right we all are in opting out!

  • Roger Hudson

    That was last week.
    This week Schultz and Junkers are busy digging an even bigger hole for Cameron to languish in. The total hubris of the EU oligarchs is laid bare ,’ it’s not worth planning for exit as they will vote to stay’ or ‘the deal will need to be ratified, after the referendum’, their contempt for the British voter is clear.
    Even Boris’s wife thinks that sovereignty has been lost , the Lord Chancellor must know it as well.
    It’s just like ’75 again ( when I voted ‘out”), the PR elite ( the PM is nothing but PR in chief) are trying to blind the voters with silly diversionary arguments, lies even.
    They hoped in the ’70s that British workers would buckle down inside the EEC but the poor productivity went on and an army of immigrant saved the economy of the rich. We need to be made to sink or swim as a sovereign country.
    Anyone who doesn’t vote for ‘leave’ is just blinkered.

  • v0lterra

    The EU is a forum for differences to be negotiated. It’s a mess. The alternative to the mess is to solve them by war. Until the EU, there was a European war every 20 years. 40 years was the longest period of peace since 1700. You can find that out from an evening’s reading of wikipedia. (I’m not saying that there was peace before then. I just couldn’t be bothered to go further back in my reading.) Those heroes, who died in WW2, sacrificed themselves so that people could haggle over this, that, and the other, round conference tables. That’s how things get sorted out without a fight. Don’t betray their legacy that gave us 70 years of peace in Western Europe. We should stick with the EU and keep making it better. The alternative would be catastrophic.