The argument has a spurious appeal. First, make a series of demands of other European countries and the EU institutions that would, in effect, take Britain out of the Union and return us to a Common Market. Second, put pressure on David Cameron into making these demands his Government’s. Third, wait for him to fail (which he would do, unless there is a major treaty revision in which those institutions and all those countries have a stake). Fourth, turn to the British people and say: “You see – we told you that the EU is incapable of reform: the only way left is Out”. Finally, win the referendum and then leave the Union.
On paper, this sequence reads well for those deeply dissatisfied with Britain’s EU membership. In practice, it is deeply problematic, for three main reasons.
First, that major treaty revision is very unlikely to happen before 2017, if at all. The major European players – Germany, France, the Commission, the Parliament – think that to reconsider the treaty would be to open a Pandora’s Box (in which belief they are almost certainly correct). The masters of the EU project will not willingly open up a pan-European negotiation that could result in its formal division into Eurozone and non-Eurozone blocks – the first united by full economic and political union; the second a looser arrangement with trade at its heart; both maintaining full access to the Single Market, but with the second block no longer bound by Single Market Rules. Admittedly, one should never say never, a truth of which the Greek drama is a reminder. But the odds against such a happy outcome are very long.
Second, there is no mandate for such a fundamental renegotiation in the manifesto on which David Cameron has just won a majority. It unambiguously commits Britain to the single market – and the single market means single rules with a single EU-wide court to rule on them. The Prime Minister wants no British participation in Eurozone bail-outs, lower EU spending, protection for the City of London and curbs on EU-wide benefit entitlement. Certainly, he should put a bit of flesh on these negotiating bones before he flies off to the European Council meeting this week. But this is a programme of cautious reform, not of fundamental change.
Finally, the inevitable consequence of such a plan is to muddle and delay the campaign for Out. It would be unfair to suggest that all those demanding fundamental renegotiation are Out supporters: some of them believe that a fundamental renegotiation is practicable, hope and believe that the Prime Minister can achieve it, and would vote In were it won. However, that is not the only view among those pressing for it publicly, or even the majority one. Some Conservative MPs among this group are in a particular bind. On the one hand, they believe that any deal which Cameron can cut will be inadequate. On the other, they scarcely like to say so. The logic of their position leads to Out. But they continue to press for the fundamental renegotiation for which there is no manifesto basis and which they believe the Prime Minister won’t deliver. For them, Out is a love that dare not speak its name.
The weakness of this position is visible in the opening shot of the Daily Telegraph‘s Europe series today. The case it puts is right: the EU is deeply flawed. The writers are magisterial: Luke Johnson, Mark Littlewood, John Mills, Matt Ridley and others. The effect of the series will surely be beneficial, since its readers will learn more about why the Union isn’t working. But the logic on which it is founded – with its focus on a big renegotiation – has a flaw at at its heart. For example, Cameron is not going to press for a single-state national veto for Britain without a major treaty revision – one of the ten demands that the authors set out. Nor would he achieve it if he did.
And while the energy of those who believe in Out is dissipated on renegotiation, that of those who support In is fixed on their goal. The old saw has it that a lie gets halfway round the world while truth has still to get its boots on. At this rate, the Prime Minister will return from his negotiation with the In case thoroughly made – backed by the authority of government, no real purdah and money from the EU institutions – and the No campaign yet to make its case.
It could all be different. The squabbling medley of Out campaigners could come together under the leadership of a single vehicle, which can only be the all-Party campaign now kicking off in Parliament. They could drop pressing for a renegotiation in which they don’t really believe, and start setting out the benefits of leaving the EU (in which they do): fewer politicians, better immigration control, more money for public services and tax cuts, a stronger economy, global engagement.
If this case is communicated effectively, Britain may vote Out. However hard a fundamental renegotiation is pressed, it won’t happen (at least, without a Europe-wide convulsion first). So doesn’t it make sense for Eurosceptics to drop the latter and push the former? Oh and by the way, not demanding of Cameron a programme that he won’t concede would be a little bit helpful to the Conservative Party, too.