Edward McMillan-Scott: Major adds new ingredient to Europe debate

THE man who greeted Sir John Major before his Berlin speech on Thursday evening knows a bit about British demands in the EU. Hans-Gert Poettering was leader of the conservative/Christian Democrat EPP Group when I was asked to renegotiate our terms of membership by William Hague, then leader of the Conservative Party.

In microcosm those endless wrangles over detail – we stayed in the group but as semi-detached members – reflect the wider debate about Britain’s place in Europe.

When David Cameron subsequently decided to split from the EPP, his decision was widely condemned as undermining Britain’s standing, and led to my own departure from the Conservative Party.

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But Sir John’s intervention shows how desperate David Cameron is to shore up his dwindling store of continental goodwill, to appease the 100-or-so Tory MPs who want out of Europe and are holding their tongues until after the Rochester and Strood By-election this coming Thursday.

Although the headlines have focused on Ed Miliband’s leadership crisis, both he and Mr Cameron are now on notice. And bang on cue Nigel Farage – on target to win the by-election handsomely – positions himself between them with a demand to be included in TV debates.

How often have foreign leaders heard a British Conservative say “I really need your help: my backbenchers want to see real change?” and usually they have delivered. It is not weakness on their part but a strategic calculation that Britain must be part of the process, whether it is the EU or, say, Nato.

John Major’s speech was often equivocal about Mr Cameron’s tactics towards the EU, but he introduced a new note, massively upping the ante, by saying “for the first time, there is a serious possibility that our electorate could vote to leave the EU. I put the chance of exit at just under 50 per cent”.

I think that he over-estimates likely opposition to the EU in an actual referendum: indeed, on Armistice Day I spoke for EU membership in a debate at the University of York’s student union against Ukip’s Gawain Towler (a former York politics student) and won by 84 – 22 votes.

Perhaps the new political polling guru, Lord Ashcroft, has put his finger on the medium term future of Ukip by discovering that Rochester and Strood’s voters will support Ukip at a by-election but will return to their traditional allegiance for the general election. Certainly that was the feeling I had during the European election, rightly or wrongly seen as a chance for voters to protest without significant risk.

So the challenge for the UK’s party leaders from that by-election onwards will be differentiation and the nagging issue of Europe, not usually at the forefront of voters’ minds, keeps coming to the fore.

When David Cameron told his party not to ‘bang on’ about Europe, it was wishful thinking. Now, he is forced by his own manoeuvres to do exactly that.

Talking around Westminster about these matters, and the possibility of a referendum on Europe in 2017, I understand that Mr Cameron has been assuring both side of the argument of his good intentions. On the one hand he can say to Euro-sceptics ‘this time I really mean it about the referendum, and I’ll campaign to get out if I don’t achieve reforms in the EU’ and to the pro-Europeans ‘I am all that stands between a sensible approach to Brussels and a populist Tory leader who won’t equivocate or pander to UKIP, just call for a withdrawal’.

With that in mind, it has been a testing period for the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders, who stand on the same ground, that only if there is a substantial change in our relationship with the EU arises will they support a referendum.

All three spoke to the CBI Congress recently in the knowledge that its membership of larger UK businesses overwhelmingly wants to remain firmly with the EU’s Single Market.

My hope is that this consensus prevails.

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Europe debate has been the painstaking examination of every facet of our relationship by Whitehall departments, who in turn have been consulting British interests widely.

As the results have emerged month by month in almost all areas, the findings are that there is little appetite, or indeed little need, for change in our relationship with the EU.

One aspect does need more urgent attention. Immigration was raised by John Major with the words ‘I hate having to make this argument’.

However, the ruling by the EU’s court a few days ago on the basis of the new wording in the Lisbon Treaty – not the EU’s founding Treaty of Rome – ‘in which the free movement of persons is ensured in conjunction with appropriate measures with respect to external border controls, asylum, immigration and the prevention and combating of crime’ suggests that Mr Cameron’s freedom of movement even on new measures to rationalise UK immigration to be agreed with EU partners is assured.

• Edward McMillan-Scott is a former MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.