Last night, in a debate at Leeds University, I described the Prime Minister’s strategy on Europe as double blackmail — first of fellow EU members and then of the British electorate.
There is nothing democratic about a plan to renegotiate the terms of our membership of the EU and then have a take-it-or-leave-it in/out referendum.
Cameron will be telling fellow EU members to reorganise themselves on his terms or else risk Britain leaving. And he will then tell the UK electorate to choose between his version of Europe or no Europe, with neither a different set of reforms nor the status quo being options. But success for him in the first requires a UK exit to be credible, and success in the second requires exit to be unthinkable.
He is banking that this double gamble will work. But there are signs that it won’t.
First, on the European front. Philippe de Schoutheete, an influential writer on European affairs and one of the negotiators of the Maastricht Treaty, pointed out in an article last week that other European countries are beginning to ask why they should take the risk of negotiating with a country that might be on the point of leaving:
Most of them are gradually coming to a completely opposite conclusion … it would be more rational, and infinitely easier, to invert the premises, namely to await the result of the British referendum announced for 2017, before negotiating issues on the basis of its result. The fact is, that you do not negotiate in the same way with someone who is going to leave and someone who is going to stay. You need to know.
As to the likely reception to some of the specific proposals floated already on the Tory backbenches, see my article published by the Foreign Policy Centre.
Then, when it comes to putting the results to the British people, Cameron hopes, of course, to win an endorsement of his version of Europe — with nothing else on offer except a complete exit, with its dire consequences. But what if he somehow secures, for instance, an opt-out from the social chapter and consumer protection legislation? Our choice then would be between excluding ourselves from the single European market, or joining it on a new basis, with cut-throat competition and no protection for either workers or consumers. How are British trade unionists, for example, supposed to react to that? It’s hard to imagine them campaigning enthusiastically to stay in a union shorn of all protection.
And what if Cameron wants Britain to withdraw from all forms of EU cooperation other than the single market — which is what many Conservatives advocate? How are British researchers going to respond to being excluded from European research and development programmes? What will students think about no longer being eligible for the ERASMUS programme? No-one will be given a real choice about this. All they will be offered is the blackmailer’s choice: accept it or face total exclusion from Europe.
These issues were part of an interesting debate about Britain’s European future that I had yesterday evening with Rebecca Taylor MEP representing the Lib Dems, Conservative Alec Shelbrooke MP, and leading academic Richard Hayton at the University of Leeds in an event organised by the Foreign Policy Centre think tank.
Meanwhile, for some interesting alternative ideas on reform, see this Kosmopolito blog article.