Can Europe Make It?

Smoke and mirrors over 'Brexit': key questions on the path to the EU referendum

Cameron has unleashed a process he won't be fully able to control, having major impacts on the UK's political dynamics and its constitutional future at home and in the EU over the next two years.

Kirsty Hughes
15 May 2015
Merkel and Cameron, 2011.

Merkel and Cameron, 2011.Wikicommons/Sebastian Zvez. Some rights reserved.The UK's path to a referendum on its EU membership is already a central issue for David Cameron's new government. Ministers are set to travel to Brussels, Berlin and other capitals ahead of an EU leaders' summit at the end of June - opening up negotiation on Britain's demands for reform, opt-outs, new language and more. Expect much heat and dust, smoke and mirrors but not much light in this debate.

Cameron wants to be able to tell the British public he has negotiated an important, beneficial deal for the UK. But this is unlikely - small concessions not major changes are the likely order of the day - and so there will be a political charade around the talks and eventual outcome.

There are key political questions here: what are the chances Cameron will bring anything substantive back from Brussels? Will other supporters of the UK's EU membership back Cameron or will they run their own separate campaigns - a divided 'yes' campaign?

How much will the Tories split? How much may the UK's four countries differ during the campaign and when they vote? And what will a 'yes' vote mean - will it cement the UK's current half-in, half-out status in the UK, together with its ever lower influence over the EU's strategic direction?

Cameron's game

Cameron's referendum gambit is at one level a clever one. He managed to keep restive Tory sceptics fairly quiet during the 2010-2015 coalition government by the promise of a referendum on EU membership after he negotiated a new and better deal for the UK. His gambit is that other pro-EU groups in the UK, which includes a veritable 1975-style line-up of parties, business and unions (Labour, LibDems, SNP, Greens, TUC, CBI, and more), will all argue, with some large-ish part of the Tories, for a 'yes' and ensure the UK stays in the EU.

Eurosceptic Tories - estimated to include anywhere from 60-100 MPs in the new House of Commons intake - will campaign against, alongside UKIP and a fair chunk of the UK media. But Cameron thinks he can manage this - precisely because he is holding a referendum and undertaking a renegotiation, in contrast to John Major in the 1990s, when the Tory government collapsed under the weight of its infighting over Europe. Cameron's aim of dragging other parties behind him, as he solves (he hopes) the Tory EU problem for a generation, is a serious challenge for other pro-EU groups and parties.

Will it be a divided 'yes' campaign?

It seems inevitable that the 'yes' campaign will be divided at least to some extent. Within just a week of the general election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has differed with Cameron over human rights, said it would support the UK taking its fair share of the EU's refugees, demanded greater devolution of powers than Cameron is offering and reiterated that it is pro-EU and doesn't see the need for a referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's leader, has also repeated her demand for a 'double-lock' on the referendum, so that if any of the UK's four countries vote 'yes', even if England votes 'no', there shouldn't she says be a 'Brexit'. Cameron won't concede this but it sets the SNP up for arguing for a new independence referendum should England vote 'no' and Scotland 'yes'

The SNP is likely to make a much more pro-European case for staying in the EU than the Tories, and the chances of the SNP being part of an all-party campaign must be negligeable. Given its anti-austerity stance, the SNP will also need to make a case for change in the EU - but a positive case rather than a sceptic withdrawal, or the case for more opt-outs. Polls tend to put Scottish pro-EU opinion ahead of that in England, and it will be interesting to see how the SNP's arguments impact in Scotland and beyond once the campaign proper gets under way.

What will the other UK parties do? Labour saw its vote wiped out in Scotland for a mixture of reasons, but one of those was clearly its close partnering with the Tories in the 'Better Together' campaign for a 'no' in the Scottish independence referendum. Will it campaign separately or would it join in a nationwide 'Better Together in the EU' campaign - surely not a good idea? And when Cameron produces his likely-to-be very small renegotiation rabbits from his hat, will Labour go along with the charade that these are significant, or will they say these are small or even negative but that the EU is positive for different reasons?

The chances are that Labour will try to hoe its own path but it will, like Cameron, want to make a relatively 'Little England' case for British national interest and the economic benefits of membership and shy away from any strong comments on the political benefits of working together. If that is the cautious path they tread, the SNP and Greens will surely be making a much broader, more pro-EU argument on issues from migration to human rights.

There is of course already a putative cross-party campaign vehicle, 'British Influence' - with names like Ken Clarke, Peter Mandelson and Danny Alexander on its board suggesting a rather old-style approach to a joint campaign.

Will the SNP pool its voice in such a grouping - it seems unlikely. And surely the LibDems - decimated after losing seat after seat to their erstwhile coalition partners - will not be looking to help Cameron in his EU gambit, so how will they campaign around a 'yes' in the referendum?

Will Cameron get significant concessions out of Brussels?

It seems highly unlikely that Cameron will get anything other than small changes to the UK's position in the EU. There is no political will amongst the other 27 member states to debate major changes either for all member states (beyond measures to continue tackling the euro crisis) or just to help the UK, at the present time. Germany's finance minister Wolfgang Schauble took time off briefly from attacking Greece's Syriza government to criticise George Osborne within days of the Tories’ election win. Nor is there time to negotiate treaty change and have it ratified - even if there were the political will - before a referendum in 2016 or 2017.

Yet despite widespread annoyance at the UK's behaviour in the EU down the years, not least recently, most member states would rather the UK remained inside the Union and will surely offer some, albeit very minor changes and concessions. There may be draft protocols and political statements committing to change in future treaties, together with some tweaking of the rules within the existing treaties to give Cameron a bone to take back to the voters. He may, after tough talks, get some change to the rules on access to benefits for EU migrants, but no change to the fundamental principle of free movement of labour.

Cameron is also to a considerable extent pushing for things that largely already exist - for instance powers flowing from Brussels to member states is enshrined in the EU's 'subsidiarity' principle. And more powers for national parliaments to challenge laws proposed by the European Commission is in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty.

Former LibDem MEP Andrew Duff sets out an elegant explanation of the existing 'yellow and orange' cards' powers that national parliaments have, noting that since 2009 the 'yellow' card procedure has been activated successfully just twice, the 'orange' card never. Yet, as he says, Cameron wants to make the orange tint a bit closer to red. This is fiddling at the margins.

Cameron also wants some more protection for the euro-outs to ensure the 19 euro countries don't gang up on the 9 non-euro countries not least in ways that may impact adversely on the City of London. Cameron may achieve some political statement or protocol here but this sort of split between euro ins and outs has not in fact been seen. Disagreements are much more likely to go across both groups.

Will the referendum cement the UK's semi-detached status in the EU?

Cameron is in fact behaving rather like a very small EU member state - chasing the few things that most matter to him while not being a serious player in any of the EU's most important business.

The UK has been notably absent from the high-level strategic negotiations with Putin over Ukraine, exercises its opt-out over the vital issue of refugees and migrants arriving across the Mediterranean (as with many other justice and home affairs issues), and of course already has opt-outs from the euro, and the Schengen border-free area. In many ways, the UK is more semi-detached from the EU than Norway (outside the EU but not only in the European Economic Area but also a member of Schengen).

Under the Tory-LibDem coalition government, Cameron has secured for the UK a dwindling influence in the EU. To the consternation of many within the EU, and the US from the outside, the UK's voice and diplomatic and political skills and influence were ever more seldom heard from 2010-2015 - whether on enlargement to the western Balkans and Turkey, the Ukraine crisis, the euro crisis (apart from carping from the side-lines) or the associated major youth unemployment crisis across southern Europe.

How the Tories approach repealing the UK's Human Rights Act  - and any challenge to the UK's membership of the European Convention on Human Rights - while separate from the EU may also impact on EU debates in the next two years. The EU's Charter of Rights applies to the UK (despite a protocol for the UK and Poland explaining its political limits in the Lisbon Treaty) and joining the Council of Europe and so the European Convention has been part of the political criteria for EU membership since the 1990s as set out for the new central and east European member states.

Taking the UK's semi-detached status yet further, Cameron is said to want an opt-out from the EU's founding goal of 'ever closer union among the peoples of Europe'. If he gets this, it will make little practical difference, but it will certainly symbolically cement the UK's special, half-in, half-out status within the EU. Other member states are unlikely to give way on any substantive measures they don't agree with, but dealing with the recurring UK problem by a special status for the UK, through cosmetic and one-off adjustments, may well be a price many are willing to pay.

This will be a big challenge for the variegated 'yes' campaign. Of course, the 'no' campaign will have to explain what alternative to membership they see as desirable - surely not a Norwegian 'fax' democracy where it is part of the single market but with no say in the rules? But the 'no' side will be easily able to point to divisions on the 'yes' side,  and to those who contradict Cameron and say he brought home very little. And surely the SNP, perhaps Labour, perhaps the LibDems, will not participate in a Cameron game of smoke and mirrors to pretend changes are bigger than they are, or to support changes that aren't even desirable.

The UK's future in the EU

A vital debate lies ahead for the UK on its position in the European Union. But expect much smoke and mirrors at least from Cameron. On the positive side, forty years after its first referendum on EU membership, and after forty years of being a largely recalcitrant and difficult member state, it is maybe time for the UK to decide if it wants to be part of the EU or not.

But the outcome - if it is a 'yes' vote - may be less clear than that. With existing opt-outs, and whatever package Cameron negotiates, the UK's semi-detached status is likely to be further reinforced. The UK as a 'Little Englander' bit part player in the EU is the unattractive but most likely outcome for the foreseeable future. Yet at least that would leave the chance open for a future, non-Tory government to play a fuller and more positive role and rebuild British influence in the EU.

But a 'yes' is far from a foregone conclusion. While current polls tend to show the 'yes' vote ahead, it is early days, and many people are undecided, as well as highly uninformed about the EU; and the UK's eurosceptic media is a force to be reckoned with.

So a 'Brexit' cannot be ruled out - the UK will have withdrawn from cooperation in Europe, and downgraded itself in terms of both regional and global influence across a range of vital issues. And if England votes 'no' and Scotland 'yes' then there will surely be a strong call for a new independence referendum in Scotland. And a perhaps less likely but not impossible scenario would be if 'yes' votes in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were to push a divided but tending to 'no' England over the line to a 'yes', then a different and major constitutional row will surely break out.

Cameron has unleashed a process that he will not be able to fully control, and one that will have major impacts on British political dynamics and the UK's constitutional future at home and in the EU in the coming two years. The Tories will be split during the campaign, but some of the biggest challenges are now for the pro-EU opposition parties to decide how and with whom to campaign, to get a 'yes' without being the support act to Cameron's EU-Little England gambit.

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