[British] voters will have the chance to leave the European Union before the end of 2017, David Cameron will pledge today as he sets Britain on course for a momentous referendum. The Prime Minister will commit himself to winning an “in-out” vote even if the campaign puts him at odds with much of his party or even if the EU remains largely unreformed. But he will seek to give the referendum unstoppable momentum by publishing a draft Bill before 2015 and setting a deadline of November 2017 before which it must be held….
If this report is accurate, particularly in the implication that Cameron would vote to stay in the EU in any event, what it describes is theater, no more.
The fact that there will be no vote until after the next election (scheduled for 2015) means that, if there is a referendum at all, it will, in all probability, be presided over by the Europhile Labour Party. Best guess is that a few scraps will be thrown Britain’s way by its EU ‘partners’. A large majority of the Labour Party, supported at least by the Liberal Democrats, the Scots Nationalists (assuming, as I do, that Scotland will still be in the UK), and a section of the Tory Party, will then find these trivial concessions to be a splendid deal and urge the yes vote that they will probably get. For those that know their British political history, it will be 1975 all over again, with some notable Bizarro twists.
Even if the Conservatives do somehow manage to win the next election, I am at a loss to understand how Cameron can possibly “renegotiate” the Treaty (an essentially impossible proposition anyway) with any force if he is indeed going to say now that he will support continued British membership of a “largely unreformed” EU. Hopefully that part of the Times report (which reads a little ambiguously) is wrong, but if it is not (and Cameron has said similar things before), the prime minister has already thrown away what could have been his strongest card. I doubt he has the stomach for the other most immediately obvious hardline negotiating tactic: an updated version of the game that France played in the early 1960s (obstreperous non-cooperation while remaining formally within the limits of the existing treaties).
We have yet to hear the speech Cameron has to make, and we have yet to hear how he fields the questions that will follow, but my first reaction to this news is to think that it means (as I have feared for quite a while) that the only escape tunnel that Cameron will be prepared to offer is one that ends up back in the prison yard. The UK stays in the EU, unhappy, hog-tied and stuck.
So far as the Tories are concerned, it probably means a short term boost (fiery talk over the EU generally does that), to be followed by disillusion (and, eventually, electoral disaster) once voters understand that (as I suspect is the case) this fire comes with smoke and mirrors, but not a lot of heat.
I hope that I am wrong. I hope that the full details of what Mr Cameron has to say will include a plan sufficiently cunning to quickly make these first reactions of mine a piece of happily obsolete pessimism, but I would be surprised if that turns out to be the case. The best chance of a British departure from the EU remains–as it has for some time—that the EU divorces the UK rather than the other way round.
But that’s another story.