The Corner

The one and only.

Toward Ever-Closer Disunion


David Cameron’s speech on Britain and the European Union was delivered yesterday to the usual cries of “historic” significance from the media (History herself rarely comments in this impetuous way). The headline story is that the next Tory manifesto will promise a referendum which, if Cameron wins the election in 2015, will give the voters in 2017 a choice between endorsing a new and looser U.K.-EU relationship (that he hopes to negotiate with Brussels) and leaving the EU altogether. This is the famous “In-Out” referendum that Cameron has until now tried to avoid, but that the rise of Nigel Farage’s euroskeptic UKIP party has finally compelled him to offer the voters through gritted teeth.  

The Daily Telegraph blogs page has a very balanced selection of reactions. To my mind, Daniel Hannan gives the most cheerfully optimistic reaction (rejoice, it’s what we euroskeptics have been asking for); Dan Hodges the most tart one (it’s a Cameron resignation letter, just post-dated and with a second-class stamp); Ambrose Evans-Pritchard the most dismissive one (it’s pretty well irrelevant since the euro crisis will doom the EU long before 2017 anyway); and Charles Crawford the most serpentine one (it’s a clever way to block UKIP, embarrass his Lib-Dem coalition allies who favored a referendum until one became possible, paint Labour as opposed to popular democracy, and please his own restive party, but it’s also a dodge that will have only minimal influence on whatever happens in 2017).

That last point is, however, the most important one from, ahem, a “historical” standpoint. So what is likely to happen over the years up to and beyond 2017? Let’s do a checklist: 

Endgame 1. As Hodges speculates, one very likely result is that Cameron will lose the election in 2015 and promptly leave politics. No referendum on Europe is ever held because only the Tories and UKIP promised one — and they lost. The fizz goes out of the European issue under a Labour or Lib-Lab coalition, and Britain moves ever further into “ever-closer union” with its European partners.

Endgame 2. Cameron loses, but in this case to a Labour party that was forced to pledge its own referendum on Europe when Cameron’s promise turned out to be popular. By 2017, however, Cameron has been replaced as Tory leader by an ostensible euro skeptic (Boris Johnson) or a genuine one (Michael Gove or Owen Patterson.) Prime minister Ed Miliband does his best to fudge the issue, but he is swept along by popular sentiment into giving voters the same real choice as Cameron. When Miliband gets only modest and superficial reform from Brussels, the Tories and the tabloids mount a strong campaign for withdrawal. In response Labour and Britain’s new cross-party establishment (the City, the BBC, the universities, etc.) mount a massive campaign to frighten the Brits into staying inside. And with 94 per cent of the votes counted, the result is still . . . too close to call.

#more#Endgame 3. Cameron wins the election in 2015, negotiates a deal with Brussels that meets 60 percent of his demands, proclaims victory, fights against the referendum campaign in 2017 on the slogan “Vote for a New Europe,” and wins. As under Endgame 1, the fizz goes out of the European issue and Britain moves closer to Brussels, etc.

Endgame 4. Cameron wins the election in 2015, negotiates with Brussels, falls short of an acceptable deal even by his own standards, adopts a covert strategy of fighting to lose on a withdrawal platform, succeeds in this, and watches helplessly as the Tory party splits into several factions. A europhile Tory rump joins Labour and the Lib-Dems to form a new coalition with a narrow majority on a policy of accepting ever-closer union. Other Tories form a new party with UKIP. Cameron loses office and leaves politics. The European issue loses its fizz etc., etc.

There are other possibilities, of course; but these four futures look realistic. Three of them lead to an outright win for the europhile tendencies in British life, and the fourth — Endgame 2, a very narrow win for either side — would probably be cited as requiring no great constitutional change — or staying inside the EU and swallowing the consequences. A gloomy prospect for euroskeptics and admirers of Britain’s constitutional liberal democracy.

Relax, I’m kidding. That would be true for the day after the referendum and, just possibly, for a year or two after that. But it would not be long before the euroskeptics in British politics stirred themselves again and began a long campaign to resist any further British immersion in Europe’s ever-closer union. They would find ammunition for their campaign in the various promises, now broken, of pro-European campaigners to the effect that Europe’s centralization had finally reached its limit. They would argue, not illogically, that a referendum no more settles a political question permanently than a general election does: Neither parliaments nor electorates can bind their successors. And when Labour, the Lib-Dems, and the Europhile Tory rump cite the democratic authority of the referendum, they will also incidentally recall Europe’s own practice of holding a succession of referendums until the voters reached the result that their governments want — except here the government would be asked to keep holding referenda until the people get the result they want.

In short, the Brits are simply uncomfortable inside the legal and political institutions of continental Europe. They always will be. The only method known of keeping them inside is to threaten them with nameless horrors if they try to depart. But these threats always look like turnip-ghosts on the morning after. So Britain’s complaints, demands, requests to Brussels for exceptions to treaty rules, and all the other “awkward squad” maneuvers that drive European leaders to exasperation will resume after the briefest of intervals. Nothing will have changed. Britain will remain a querulous obstacle to all the policies that the rest of Europe wants. The rest of Europe will gradually decide that it really would prefer Britain outside. And at some unexpected moment a crisis will suddenly erupt.

Last time it took about 13 years — from the 1975 referendum to Lady Thatcher’s Bruges speech — for euroskeptic opinion to revive and begin to shift policy. Events happen more quickly today. So my prediction is that the Brits will hold a referendum on their EU membership in 2017, vote to stay in by a large or small margin, and then abruptly decide to withdraw from the EU in circumstances of crisis and dissension in about 2022.

Unless Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is correct and Europe itself has collapsed in ever-closer disunion before then.


Sign up for free NR e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review