In/Out: Good or Bad?

by Charles C. W. Cooke

Of David Cameron’s promise to hold an In/Out referendum on British membership of the European Union, Dan Hannan writes in the Telegraph:

What an extraordinary moment. As recently as two years ago, the PM was saying that he saw no need for a referendum because he didn’t want to leave the EU. Now he says that Britain needs a different deal if it is to remain a member at all. And, critically, the people who decide whether it’s a good enough deal won’t be the ministers and mandarins who have brought us to our present unhappy state, but the electorate as a whole.

This was my instinct, too. But I was given pause by Andrew Stuttaford, who last night outlined the case for pessimism and poured cold water on the hope that the promise was anything more than “theatre.” Stuttaford termed the referendum “an escape tunnel into the Prison Yard.”

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’.

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. 

Dan Hannan disagrees. (It should be noted that Dan is writing with the benefit of having heard today’s speech):

As I left the magnificent Bloomberg HQ after the speech, a political correspondent asked me whether I wasn’t disappointed. I stared at him uncomprehendingly. Disappointed? I’ve spent my entire adult life campaigning for a referendum on EU membership. Over the past two years, through the People’s Pledge, it has been my main focus in politics. (Take a bow, by the way, everyone who signed the Pledge: this is as much your victory as anyone’s). Disappointed?

Ah, persisted the journalist, but you surely can’t be happy about the fact that he wants to renegotiate first. Really? I’m pretty sure that I was the first person to suggest the renegotiate-then-referendum option back in 2011. I have spent 16 months plugging it, slightly to the frustration of some readers, who felt I was becoming a bore. But it worked. The PM changed his mind. So now I’m supposed to be disappointed because David Cameron has adopted my idea?

Think how far we have come since, in 2011, David Cameron said: “I don’t believe an In/Out referendum is right, because I don’t believe that leaving the European Union would be in Britain’s interests.” What changed his mind? Partly the People’s Pledge, partly the righteous 111 MPs who showed how fast opinion in the Commons was moving on the referendum issue, partly the eurozone crisis, and partly Ukip.

Which is why it is so odd to hear Ukip friends cavilling and carping this morning. The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has just embraced the policy that has been your central demand for 20 years. Stop moaning, chaps, and start preparing to fight and win that vote.

Ceteris paribus, this is a winnable fight. A YouGov poll from October last year revealed that 65 percent of Britons described themselves as “pessimistic” about the EU. Just 22 percent felt “optimistic.” We can work with that. Moreover, 49 percent of respondents told pollsters that they would vote for Britain to leave outright if they were afforded such choice in a referendum. 28 percent said they’d vote to stay in. No doubt Andrew Stuttaford is right, and the combination of British domestic politics and Europe’s reluctance to let Britain go will make withdrawal extremely hard. But hard is not impossible, and this is a step forward — even if it is not the final step toward freedom.

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