The Europe debate will tell us much about the state of Britain

The European referendum is looming in Britain. But when will it be?

Gerry Hassan
25 January 2016

EU flag Wikimedia/MPD01605. Some rights reserved.

2016 will be a turbulent year for Britain and the world.

One issue will dominate the UK political classes beyond economic and financial worries or anxieties about immigration and security, and that is Europe.

Europe will connect with all of the above and more. Cameron’s main impetus is to have a quick referendum, to win it and get on with the rest of his Prime Ministership. It won’t work out that way.

To have the referendum relatively soon (meaning before Scottish school holidays start) a number of pieces have to fall into place. First, Cameron has to go to his EU summit in February and win some semblance of a deal. Then he has to be able to come back and present it to the House of Commons and country as an honourable agreement - more substantive than Harold Wilson’s fig leaf in 1975.

This is the beginning of the problems. To go sooner rather than later, Cameron has to lean on the Electoral Commission whose advice is to have a six-month campaign period in a referendum, unlike a general election. That timescale is impossible if Cameron chooses to go before the end of June.

Then there is the issue of the Enabling Bill to allow the referendum that is sitting waiting to be launched, with a provisional date in the parliamentary calendar post-EU summit. This would take, in the best-case scenario, ten days to railroad through parliament, but the Tories are not the full masters of this.

They have a Commons majority of twelve, and if Labour chooses to oppose a rush, along with the SNP, the government would be defeated by Euro-sceptic Tories. This leaves Cameron’s June fate in the hands of the discipline of Corbyn’s Labour party, without even thinking about the House of Lords.

The possible timescale has been laid out. Cameron is under the misapprehension that if he gets the referendum out of the way early, he is, with one bound, liberated and free. How wrong this judgement is – straight out of the late period of Tony Blair’s school of disastrous leadership.

Before Christmas the preferred referendum date in Downing Street was 16 June. Then they realised, not being football fans, that this is the day of the England v. Wales European Championship match. They still have an option, they tell themselves, of 23 June – although time is running out on that. Their reserve position, and one which sees the quick campaign fall by the wayside, is 15 September. Many think June is fast disappearing as an option.

This is where realities kick in. Cameron and Osborne want the referendum as soon as possible, because they are worried about the fragilities of the UK and global economies, China, and what happens with the refugee crisis in summer, and the potential of a repeat of the vast human wave of 2015 from North Africa and the Middle East.

The ‘in’ campaign will be characterised by ‘Project Fear 2’. It will even be led by the same people who created the original in the independence referendum, most notably Tory pollster Andrew Cooper. They will emphasis economic concerns for a UK outside the EU, national security and fear of terrorists and extremism.

It will make the original ‘Project Fear’ seem like a Disney film. Despite the success of the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise (now on number eight!), sequels rarely play as well audience wise, and this will be true in the Euro vote. The ‘in’ crowd may still win, but it will be at high cost.

The limits of the pro-European case will be exposed. No senior Tory will say ‘I love Europe’. This will be presented as a purely transactional relationship. The exit case will have problems. They will present a range of possible Britains shorn of detail, but all pointing towards greater deregulation, more liberal markets and further featherbedding of the super-rich – while not presenting any social vision.

The British establishment doesn’t really like referendums as they worry that people could make the wrong choice. Yet, since 1973 such votes have become commonplace practice for what passes for British democracy.

Cameron knows there is a chance that he could just lose – something that only dawned on the British political classes at the last minute of the independence referendum. Already, they are drawing up contingencies in case this happens.

If the UK voted narrowly – say 52:48 to leave the EU – one scenario is that the UK government would consider a second vote on a better package. This has already been floated by the likes of Boris Johnson, showing how widely it is being considered.

Europe has a habit of telling nations whose people make the wrong choice to vote again until they get it right – as happened to Denmark once and Ireland twice. Yet, if this happens in the UK it will be a low point in the behaviour of our politicians, state of our democracy and reveal the potential disunity of the UK if Scotland votes one way, and the rest of the country the other way.

Still more likely is that the UK votes narrowly to stay in, but that it decides little about where Britain sees its future and its relationship with Europe. Rather like the Scottish vote. But it will witness the last days of David Cameron.

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