IN between attending a performance of Cinderella at Chipping Norton Theatre and visiting Little Dots Daycare nursery, Witney, Prime Minister David Cameron had a major political issue on his mind as 2012 turned in 2013.
It was the topic no Conservative Prime Minister has been able to escape since Edward Heath moved Britain towards its eventual membership of the European Economic Community under Labour’s Harold Wilson in 1975.
Yes, the big E: Europe. It helped finish Margaret Thatcher, highlighted the weaknesses of John Major’s leadership over the 1992 Maastricht Treaty and dogged the line of Tory challengers to Tony Blair until the party finally settled on David Cameron in 2005.
The issue was unavoidable, even in coalition Government – politically, the future of the Conservtives depends on settling the big question over Britain’s membership.
So, on January 23, at the London headquarters of financial news service Bloomberg, Mr Cameron laid his cards on the table: an in/out referendum, based on renegotiated terms with the EU, if the Conservatives win the next general election.
He said: “It is time to settle this European question in British politics. I say to the British people: this will be your decision.” Yet he said the UK’s “national interest is best served in a flexible, adaptable and open European Union and that such a European Union is best with Britain in it”.
The EU has veered from its original aims of economic co-operation and its reach through laws and regulations is huge, covering topics from agriculture to customs, aid to employment, and citizens’ rights.
Europhiles say laws must be pan-European to meet the unstoppable rise of globalisation and point to recent directives like stopping companies charging more than calls to a mobile or local landline number for inquiries and complaints. But those barmy Brussels stories keep coming.
A bid to ban ban olive oil in refillable containers over hygiene concerns was dropped in May after an outcry, leading Lorand Laszlo – of Oxford Castle’s Prezzo – to adopt a classic bit of understatement. He told the Oxford Mail: “Some of these decisions can be quite odd.”.
More seriously, concerns about the decline of Parliamentary sovereignty, particularly how the law deals with criminals, has caused major concern. The long-drawn out battle to deport radical Islamist cleric Abu Qatada, for example, enraged many as the Home Office spent £130,018 at the European Court of Human Rights.
And it is widely accepted Labour understimated the wave of immigration from former Soviet bloc countries like Poland which joined the EU in 2004, giving citizens more rights to come to the UK.
The 2011 census showed Oxford’s population had risen 12 per cent from 135,509 in 2001 to 151,900 compared to the UK increase of 7.7 per cent. Under-fours, meanwhile, rocketed by 40 per cent.
City council leader Bob Price said then: “We’re not talking about refugees, but economic migrants, from Eastern Europe in particular, because the economy has been buoyant in sectors like hotels and restaurants.”
The impact of the end of travel restrictions on Bulgarians and Romanians in 2014 is then keenly awaited.
Yet it is the EU’s impact on business that many eyes will turn to, given the struggles of the British economy since 2008. Oxfordshire Chamber of Commerce president Bob Bradley, left, echoes a familiar sentiment from company owners – let’s stay in, but under different terms.
He said: “It is not about saying we should leave, but it is about the costs of the regulations coming out of Europe. Trading internationally is great for business and the economy and most businesses are supportive of the common market. “But the terms should be ones that everyone wants rather than being identified by bureaucrats.”
Martin Dare-Edwards, right, UK manager of petroleum firm Infineum, at Milton Hill, said he is “100 per cent in favour of staying in, even in the current terms” and leaving would be “catastrophic” for the UK economy.
While he supports cutting bureaucracy, the Brussels machine does not always steamroller firms into submission he said, pointing to a recent climbdown over ‘REACH’ regulations on acceptable chemicals that would have made trading “extremely difficult”.
But he said: “It is so our products can be accepted readily across the rest of Europe. “Also, the biggest single risk of not being in Europe is inward investment. People need to invest in the UK given the physical barriers.”
Labour has spoken out against a referendum for 2017, saying the Government’s focus should be on mending its battered economy. Labour Oxford East MP Andrew Smith agrees the vote “is about party politics, in that it is really all to do with the arguments going on in the Tory party”.
Yet he points out the party has not ruled out a public vote and “I do personally think there is a strong case for one”. Constitutional issues are a chief concern, he said, but he again emphasised the benefits to businesses in Oxfordshire, rich in science, IT and education providers that have strong international links.
He added: “It is important for many local businesses and jobs to retain access to European markets. “How I would vote, or advocate voting, in a referendum would depend on the terms on offer at the time.”
Writing in the Oxford Mail last month, Banbury’s Tory MP Sir Tony Baldry said “so much has changed” and “people feel that the EU is heading in a direction they never signed up to”.
Sir Tony, an MP of 30 years who served in Margaret Thatcher’s government, added: “They are undoubtedly into very different territory now with the Eurozone countries wanting to come more closely together.”
The South East’s Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), who are drawn from Conservatives, UK Independence Party (UKIP), Liberal Democrat, Labour and the Green Party, give mixed responses to the prospect of an ‘in or out’ vote. Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP said he wants “friendship, co-operation and trade”, but not political union.
While conceding the need for reform, the Green’s Keith Taylor said: “The EU has been a positive force in protecting our environment.
“European legislation has made the UK’s beaches cleaner, forced local authorities like Oxford City Council to act on air pollution and set clear targets for curbing carbon emissions.” Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder said 13,000 Oxfordshire jobs are linked to EU states.