I've argued over the past year or so that the EU debate in the UK was rather behind the times, in that the real options we are likely to face aren't "renegotiate" vs "status quo" or "in" vs "out", but, rather, "out" vs "more out". It seems to me increasingly plausible that, far from hotting up, the UK's EU referendum debate will fizzle out, because by the time we actually have a referendum almost everyone serious in Britain will agree that we should leave. And that won't be because we'll all have changed out minds about the value of the EU. It will be because the EU itself has changed so much that there won't be any viable form of EU membership that does not involve being part of the Single European State.
To remind you, my argument for the "out" vs "more out" characterisation of the discussion has been as follows. In response to the Eurozone crisis, the EU is pressing ahead rapidly towards full political integration, in the form of an EU Federation. That is not some vague long-term aspiration. Earlier today President Hollande of France confirmed that France wants to see full political integration, including EU-level tax-raising, budgetary power and an elected President, by 2015.
The EU Federation is at this stage scheduled to cover 24 of the shortly-to-be 28 Member States of the EU (Croatia joins this summer) – everyone that is in the Eurozone plus everyone likely to join later. That new political entity will expect to be able to use the institutions of the European Union. The European Commission will be its civil service; the Parliament will be its Parliament; the European Court of Justice and European Court of Human Rights will be its supreme courts. It simply won't be viable for there to be an EU that is not (and not going to be) inside the Single European State.
And even if that were viable, it would not work out for the UK. The reason is that, under EU voting rules, the Single European State would always have a qualified majority and so would always, by itself, be able to change the rules of the Single Market and the UK could never block it. So the UK would by default, whether it continued to call itself "in" or not, have the same status as Norway does now as an "out" – it would have to abide by rules set by others that it could not change (like Norway), and would have to contribute to the EU budget (as Norway does now).
Since a Norwegian-style arrangement is terribly unattractive for the UK, then even were a non-EU Federation EU membership viable (which it wouldn't be) we would consider it unattractive.
The logic here seems to me to be pretty unassailable. But where ever I go and whenever I have given speeches or debates on this point, I tend to meet the same objection. For example, a couple of months ago I spoke in a debate with David Miliband, the former foreign secretary. Miliband said that his reading of events was that EU leaders are not moving towards forming the Single State I mentioned. I spoke at an event in Australia making the same argument, meeting the same objection from a very senior Australian politician who said the view of Australians and Americans was that they wished EU leaders would work together more closely, but there was no chance of it happening. Likewise, many Conservative MPs that support renegotiation (as I always advocated) say the same thing – they claim that the EU can continue and we can continue to be members, because the EU can be persuaded to give up the airy-fairy goal of political union, which they don't really mean anyway, and instead make trade and the Single Market the central focus of the project. Even the Open Europe think-tank's Lord Leach makes the same claim.
I find this frankly weird. Somehow, in Britain, much of the political class thinks it's okay to assert that almost all the main EU leaders are just lying to our faces when they say they intend to form a political union within the next two to five years. Now perhaps, in a sort of crazed conspiracy-theorists way, one could point to other lies told by politicians and say one should never trust any of them. But that cynicism seems to me to forget what is really driving this surge to integration. It isn't some new-found fervour. It is that the events of the Eurozone crisis make it clear, to everyone, that the euro can't be a viable economic project without political integration. So, okay, you could believe that they will fail to achieve political integration, so the euro will break up and the EU collapse. If that's so then the whole "Should we leave the EU" thing seems a bit redundant. If we assume the euro and hence EU doesn't collapse, we must assume that they do get the political integration they say they plan. That so many UK politicians seem not to grasp this is rather astonishing – it's almost as if they haven't watched any news these past three years.
Not everyone, though. Some folk get it. Amongst the most surprising recent convert to my analysis is…Vince Cable, writing in the Guardian. Read what he says:
Once the eurozone stabilises, it may well proceed to a deeper level of fiscal, financial and political integration than the UK is comfortable with. Britain and others may then increasingly find themselves, by default, in a Norwegian regulatory fjord. That would in turn precipitate a formal renegotiation of our relationship…[So], there will come a point when our relationship with the EU changes, and a referendum is appropriate.
Note two things here: First, Cable sees that increased political integration in the Eurozone would leave the UK's position as akin to Norway's at present, and he thinks that would mean we would have to renegotiate. And secondly, he says "there will" come a point at which we should have a referendum – the question for him is only "when" not "if". Ed Miliband's opposition to any renegotiation or consideration of leaving will soon seem as obsolete as a Labour Party policy on mullet hairdos.
The UK's debate here is not keeping pace with events. For the Eurozone to survive, there will need to be such deep political integration amongst our EU friends and partners that even most of those that have always regarded themselves as Europhiles will no longer believe the EU is the right arrangement for us (assuming that the EU-outside-the-EU-federation is a viable entity at all). It seems increasingly likely that by 2017, unless there is a huge turnaround in opinion that means we find it tempting to join the Single European State, euro and all, almost everyone in Britain will favour leaving or/and our EU friends and partners will, perhaps with regret, be inviting us to go.