Mr Cameron is right when he says that the decision on remaining in or opting out of the European Union is the biggest the British people will make in their lifetime. What he does not make clear, however, is that a decision to leave would constitute perhaps the greatest U-turn in modern UK politics.
Half a century ago Harold Macmillan decided in 1961 that the UK’s future lay not in a loose European free trade area, but in a Common Market leading to an ever-closer union. That has been the key-stone of British foreign foreign policy ever since, supported by every succeeding government, of whatever political hue.
In the Treaty of Accession, signed by Edward Heath in 1972, and ratified by Parliament, the United Kingdom formally declared its ‘determination to construct an ever-closer union among the peoples of Europe.’
In June 1975 Harold Wilson’s referendum implicitly endorsed that commitment by voting ‘to remain within the European Community’.
In 1985 Margaret Thatcher’s Government signed up to the European Single Act promising ‘to contribute together to making concrete progress towards European unity’ - perhaps a more precise goal than ‘an ever closer union’.
At Maastricht in 1992 John Major’s Government pledged its resolve ‘to continue the process of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.’
In the 2007 the Gordon Brown’s Labour Government signed the Lisbon Treaty, which decrees that ‘the ‘the EU shall establish an economic and monetary union whose currency is the euro.’ The UK’s opt-out does not negate that broader commitment.
The UK has consistently been among the strongest supporters of the drive to complete the single market. Logically no internal market can be complete without a single currency. Mr Cameron’s demand that the euro must not become the currency of the EU is part of the great U turn.
This is not just an argument over a form of words; the ’ever closer union’ was and is, the key purpose of the European project. The reason why it emerged in the aftermath of World War 2 was primarily to integrate the nation-states of western Europe to the extent that war between them would be unthinkable and impossible. The common market was envisaged not as an end in itself, but as a means of achieving that undefined ever closer union.
Mr Cameron’s language now suggests that the United Kingdom has no real interest in such a project, and wants the EU to abandon its founding purpose, failing which he will lead the UK out.. Or he may settle for a fudge that produces, with the support of a small number of like-minded member states, a two- tier Europe, seriously weakening the EU as an economic or political force.
Is he a weak politician - unwilling to face down the Tory euro-sceptics, worried about UKIP, with no heart to challenge the jingoistic anti-European sentiment evident in parts of the media and in sections of the British public? His resort to a referendum is a sign of weakness. The keystone of British democracy is and has been for many years, the sovereignty of Parliament – a referendum is a means of subverting Parliament by passing the buck to ‘the people’.
It is ironic that the United Kingdom should be the member state leading the drive to prevent further integration in Europe, when the whole purpose of integration was, and is,. seen as the only way the nation states of Europe can prevent continued repetition of the catastrophes brought about by their own inability to tackle the virus of extreme and violent nationalism.
The Second World War was the ultimate chapter in that tragic history which very nearly saw the annihilation of the United Kingdom. More recently the UK has been the major European country most threatened by its own disintegration, and which has suffered most within its own borders from terrorism driven by extreme nationalism.
Mr Cameron campaigned vigorously to keep Scotland integrated into the UK. Does he dismiss the risk that a UK decision to leave the EU would almost certainly ensure a Scottish breakaway, and probably finish off the ailing Northern Ireland ‘peeace process’?
The EU today faces massive problems – Russian aggression on its fringe, the unprecedented refugee crisis, turmoil in the Middle East and increasing concern over America’s role there, climate change, sluggish economic growth…. All of these demand co-ordinated European responses which can come only from a stronger, more integrated European Union.