Bernard Ingham: Straight-talking the only way to get reform we need to stay in EU

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LET t’ battle commence. Or at least the phoney war. While the negotiations about the terms of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union seem to be underway, David Cameron will not apparently set out his stall until a December summit.

This unduly leisurely approach will be marked by a rising crescendo of Europhile noise about the grim future we face outside the EU.

At the outset, we ought to be clear about the enormity of the Prime Minister’s task. It is not just the EU’s resistance to anything that reduces its competence over nation-states or the Europhiles’ Mandelsonian propaganda.

It is public trust in the outcome after the general fall in public esteem of politicians and the con-job in 1975 when we voted 2-1 to continue our then two-year-old membership.

Former Health Minister Andrew Lansley has forecast a repeat of the kidology.

Consequently, if I, with 31 consecutive EU summits behind me, were asked to set out Cameron’s position for December it would be simply this:

“Mr President: I am grateful for this opportunity to tell you about the reforms the UK seeks and the political and economic realities lying behind them. I shall be candid. The situation demands it.

“We seek the right to trade with whomsoever we wish and an end to our political association with the EU and its objective of ‘ever closer union’

“This does not mean that we shall contract out of Europe. We shall continue to be an important cog in Europe’s defence through Nato and will co-operate with all who share our objectives.

“The political realities that we face over continued UK membership are formidable. The main ones are:

“First, the UK is split over our association but probably a majority is in favour of leaving because they are fed up with Europe making most of our laws, mostly by reams of expensive regulations. The ‘Mother of Parliaments’ wishes to recover her sovereignty.

“Second, the EU is considered to be expensive and riddled with fraud. The auditors have not felt able to sign off its accounts for nigh on two decades. The ‘extravagant’ European Assembly and the Euro-courts are seen as tools of federalism.

“Third, the EU is regarded as bureaucratic and undemocratic An unelected Commission has the right to initiate law. The EU proceeds regardless of public opinion towards the goal of a federal United States of Europe. Nations that reject moves towards it are asked to vote again until they get it ‘right’.

“The British want no truck with this.

“Fourth, the EU is thought to be economically ambitious and even callous in its drive to build a European nation through as single currency.

“Perhaps the great migration from the failed continent of Africa and the Islamic war zone of the Middle East will stir this institution more than have millions of unemployed in Southern Europe because of the unviable euro.

“I could go on – for example, about pretensions in foreign affairs and defence – but I think I have said enough to expose the UK problem.

“History shows that the EU tends to kick difficulties into the long grass. This time there is no long grass.

“In less than two years I am committed to a referendum on our association with the EU. Time is not on our side.

“Essentially, my question to you is what value do you put on British membership. That is in peril without fundamental reform.

“I have not exaggerated what is said and written daily in Britain. We are approaching a crossroads. It is distinctly possible that we might go different ways.”

We would all fall off our chairs if the chronically emollient Cameron were as blunt as that. And that is precisely his and our problem. We are back to trust. Can we rely on an honest appreciation of the results of the negotiation before the referendum?

Cameron’s task is more complex than Margaret Thatcher’s demand for a cut in the British contribution to the EU, which brought only “two thirds of a loaf” after five years.

This means crucially that he must be publicly very clear about what he seeks and then stand firm to the end on his basic demands.

He would be seen to be a statesman if he appointed a small group of independent-minded people to validate the outcome. I wonder whether David Davis, MP for Yorkshire’s Haltemprice and a former Minister for Europe, would agree to lead it.

Only credibility can put the EU problem to bed.