I believe there should be an EU referendum before the next General Election. It’s in our national interest to resolve this issue as soon as possible to create the certainty and stability our country needs for the future.
Only by setting an early date can we kick-start EU renegotiation talks and give the British people what they so clearly want – a say on our country’s future with Europe.
That’s why tomorrow I will be tabling an amendment to the European Union (Referendum) Bill to bring the date of the referendum forward to October 2014.
The political establishment are naturally hesitant but we have nothing to fear by giving people a chance to have their say, either way, on our future relationship with Europe.
Whatever Labour or the Conservatives want for the future of our country, it would be best to resolve the issue sooner rather than later.
There are sound reasons for holding an EU referendum before the next Election.
The British public want a referendum
First, the public clearly want an EU referendum. According to a Populus poll, more than eight in ten people want a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU; half of the population want it immediately and a further 33 per cent want it within the ‘next few years’.
This is no great surprise. People have had no say on our continued membership of Europe since 1975.
Anyone under the age of 56 has not had a chance to voice an opinion through the ballot box. That’s about 33 million people between the ages of 18 and 56 – not far off the size of Canada’s population.
People want a referendum because of the EU’s impact on their own lives. Some people want out because they want Britain to have more control over immigration, regulation and our legal system and believe it’s the EU’s fault that we don’t.
Others believe we are best served by remaining part of the EU and working with our EU partners to gently move the agenda in one direction or another. Everybody is unsure about the future. What unites everyone is the desire to remove the current uncertainty.
But why 2014? The Prime Minister says we are going to have an EU referendum in 2017. Why not just wait until then?
The fact is, the British people are not convinced there will be a referendum at all if we wait until after the next General Election. So many things can change.
They don’t understand why we can’t have one right away – and that makes them suspicious. Many people think delaying the vote is just a tactic to allow all the political leaders to kick the can even further down the road.
An early vote will kick-start renegotiation talks
Secondly, I believe it’s vital to set a date before the next Election. An early referendum will kick-start the renegotiation process today.
It will strengthen the Prime Minister’s hand in those negotiations. Right now, EU officials are stalling that process and waiting for the result of the 2015 Election.
They are hoping any new government will either be unable or unwilling to hold a referendum. But once an early date is set, EU countries will know that the British people will get an early vote no matter what.
They will need to offer tangible changes to realign our relationship sooner rather than later if they want to convince the British public to support continued membership.
Business needs certainty
Thirdly, businesses want an EU referendum because uncertainty is bad for business. Investment decisions are on hold pending the 2015 Election result.
Even if the result leads to a Conservative-led government, there will be further uncertainty about what will be renegotiated with Europe, uncertainty over the 2017 referendum result and uncertainty over the implementation of that result.
We cannot just leave things as they are. As John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), says, the UK cannot ignore the issue of our relationship with Europe: ‘For the quiet majority of companies, the status quo is not an option. Ministers must pursue reform and renegotiation as a priority.’
In fact, in a BCC poll, nearly 77 per cent of businesses supported a referendum, 33 per cent felt it should be held before 2017 and 43 per cent were happy to have a referendum after negotiations.
Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, is equally candid: ‘In too many areas, Europe has lost its way.
Its regulatory and legislative output ties up the efforts of small and medium-sized businesses, efforts which could otherwise be spent on innovation, expansion and investment.
The financial crisis, combined with some very real concerns about the politics of Europe, has presented this country with an opportunity to question the foundations of our EU membership.’
Many MPs from across all the main parties want an EU referendum in 2014. But for the Conservative Party, I believe the dangers of waiting are significant.
We can beat Labour on the economy in a straight fight but the EU issue is one which has dogged us for years and now is the time to tackle it head-on.
The Labour Party is equally divided on EU attitudes and membership and would no doubt find it a welcome relief to have the issue put to bed before 2015.
A proper response to populism
I think people understand the argument that if you vote Conservative you will get a referendum and if you vote Labour you won’t.
But we must not rely too heavily on the belief that the promise of a referendum will persuade people to vote Conservative nor trust the Labour Party not to change its position.
In reality, the British people are unsure whether the Conservative leadership would be able to stick to its promise of holding a referendum after the Election, especially if in coalition once again.
It seems to me that if we don’t hold the referendum before 2015, large numbers of people will continue to vote UKIP whatever happens – and if they do, there is a distinct danger that Labour will gain a majority and we will never see a referendum at all.
Protest votes are understandable mid-term, but mainstream politicians continue to underestimate and dismiss the power and significance of populism – currently expressed in the form of UKIP votes. Because at the heart of a populist movement is a legitimate concern unacknowledged by the political establishment.
By holding an early EU referendum, we would have recognised, embraced and addressed those concerns.
An early EU referendum would resolve the issue for all political parties as well as the British people. And for my party, I believe it will reunite the wider Conservative family so that we can win convincingly in 2015.
Bigger than party politics – time to resolve our constitutional challenges
But at the end of the day, this issue is bigger than party politics. Let this be the parliament in which we settle our constitutional challenges.
We have dealt with the AV polling system and the elections for the House of Lords; we will have dealt with the UK/Scottish issue.
We must build on this new parliamentary confidence in dealing with age-old constitutional issues and complete the process with an EU referendum.
It is in the national interest to deliver a stable country for the future.
To achieve the land of opportunity – which entails dealing with welfare, crime, immigration, business regulation and so many other vital issues – we must urgently resolve our relationship with Europe and that should not wait until 2017.
Whether we are in or out after an EU referendum, I believe we can be a great, outward- looking nation, full of self- confidence. Now is the time to resolve this challenge.
It is time for the British people to finally have their say.