If Shaun Woodward in today’s Guardian is to be believed, it seems some sort of plan is emerging in David Cameron’s mind with regard to an EU referendum in the UK. It – broadly – looks like this:
- Let the Eurozone sort out its problems, and let those crystallise into some sort of EU Treaty reform
- As this process happens, try to carve out some sort of exceptions or opt-outs for the UK to keep Tory backbenchers happy, and keep UKIP at bay
- Put this new Treaty to the British people in a referendum sometime in 2015 or later, and try to get a YES.
You can just imagine Cameron thinking to himself that his sleight of hand has everyone flummoxed. Get a good deal for the UK, and all will be fine!
Sorry David, it will not.
First of all, who is actually going to campaign for YES in the scenario laid out above? Because if the Tories have been the ones doing the negotiating, the exceptions or opt outs will most likely be on financial services or protection for workers. Is an instinctively pro-EU Labour person going to go and campaign in a referendum to keep Britain in the EU, but the price will be reduced social protection? Conversely, are some opt outs, however well-intentioned, going to bring people who lean to UKIP back into the pro-EU camp? Likewise I doubt it.
Secondly, and hence more importantly, what does NO mean in such a scenario? Because the conundrum is the same here as it was in France and the Netherlands in 2005. Those countries rejected the European Constitution, but then what? Does that mean they wanted the status quo? To leave the EU? That they wanted an alternative treaty? No-one really knew. Here Woodward suggests that David Cameron would then propose a second referendum, with a tougher question – either accept the Treaty changes, or leave the EU. But would the UK, having rejected a Treaty first time, then really be willing to approve it at a second time of asking, just with more threat the second time? Again I rather doubt it.
So what is the conclusion from all of this?
Rather obviously it shows how complicated trying to work out how a referendum could work actually is, as the subject – the EU – is changing and evolving. However, more importantly, all this leads me to the general conclusion that a simple in-out referendum would actually be a better bet – it’s simpler, clearer and more compelling that a complicated multi-step fudge which is what Cameron seems to be proposing. Yet if Cameron does propose that, would there be any way back? I fear we’re entering dangerous territory.