Flickr/Jon Ingram. Some rights reserved.
There is little doubt what most people in the UK would like to have as our relationship with the other EU member states. They would like to have free trade and to co-operate with everyone on the continent in all the ways which obviously make sense - on crime and terrorism; on global warming, and on all the other issues where we have common interests - but on an inter-governmental basis rather than as part of a steadily evolving political union.
It is equally clear that the vast majority of UK voters do not like paying nearly £300m a week to the EU, net of any money coming back; they don’t like decisions on social and employment legislation being taken in Brussels rather than in Westminster; they would like us to have more control over our borders; they don’t support either the Common Agricultural or the Common Fishery Policies - and they want to make sure that, if we are the only major country in the EU but not in the euro, that we are safeguarded against being out-voted every time their interests diverge from ours.
The problem is that the scenario which almost everyone would really like to see is not going to be on offer to us. This is not what David Cameron and George Osborne are trying to negotiate. Instead, they are pressing for very minor changes, which are going to make little or no long-term difference. These now amount to no more than trying to obtain commitments by the EU against anti-competitive labour legislation, pressing for some restriction on benefits paid to EU immigrants, asking the EU to accept that we do not want to be part of “ever closer union”, and securing some limited protection from the UK being outvoted on the eurozone.
This leaves those, like myself, who are moderate Eurosceptics, with no choice but to be on the Vote Leave side of the argument. We would not be against staying in the EU, very probably on associate rather than full membership terms, if genuine and enforceable radical change along the lines outlined above was on offer, but we recognise that this isn’t going to happen.
What would we settle for? What changes would have to be made to our relationship with the other member states to make people like me vote to stay in? This is a key question and the way in which I and other people like me answer it may well be an important factor in determining the outcome of the forthcoming referendum.
The key issue is that all the changes which we would like to see accomplished, to tempt us to stay in, involve treaty changes rather than just cosmetic statements of intent. These include primacy of UK over EU law on our own territory, freedom to sign bilateral trade deals with non-EU states, and the right to determine who can settle in the UK. To this I would also add a significant reduction in the cost of our membership which - net of all money coming back - came to £11.4bn in 2014 and which is currently on a strongly rising trend.
The problem is that treaty change is exactly what the EU leaders want to avoid. They know that, if referendums are held - which would have to happen in several countries if treaties were changed - they would very probably be lost. This is because there is no appetite among the EU electorate for the greater and greater degree of integration which the EU leadership fervently wants, and which cannot be avoided if the single currency is to survive.
This must be one of the main reasons why the present government is asking for so little. They know that if they ask for anything more radical, the answer will be “no”. To present whatever they do manage to achieve as the triumph required to try to persuade a sceptical UK electorate to go along with it, they therefore have to ask for very small changes, because these are the only ones with any chance of being agreed.
So this is the dilemma we and the UK voters face. As things stand now, we can either opt for staying in with very little change – although this will not be the status quo because the EU is rapidly evolving towards being a federal state to save the euro. Or we can vote to leave, thus clearing the decks for renegotiating our relationship with the other EU member states much more along the lines we want. It is because voting to leave is the only way to outflank the treaty change barrier that this looks the only option available. If we are going to achieve the stable inter-governmental and free trade long-term relationship with the EU which we would like to have - we have to leave.
It must also be in the interest of our current EU partners as well that this should happen. We are bound to be in a different place from the other member states, because we are not in the euro and almost certainly never will be. It is not to their benefit to have us holding the EU leadership back from forming a federal state, if that is what they are determined to achieve. But if this is where we are going to be, we need to make sure that we have enough freedom of manoeuvre to avoid getting sucked into a United States of Europe as second class citizens.
So really the bottom line is: how can we shape our future so that we can play a constructive role in Europe without getting caught up in the construction of a federal EU state involving far more political integration that nearly everyone in the UK wants? The answer is that, to do this, we need much more change than can be accomplished without the EU treaties being substantially revamped. It is because this now looks out of reach that very probably a majority of the UK electorate – supported by moderate eurosceptics like me – will vote for Brexit when the time comes.
The Economist requires you to pay a pound a week to use its website. We’ll never charge for our content, but that doesn’t mean it’s free to produce. If you can chip in a pound a week, please do.
Get our weekly email