So, today’s the last chance for the referendumites, and all thanks to the Tories (yep, the self-same Tories who would have had several more seats in the Commons right now if it weren’t for the splintering of their vote by the likes of UKIP at the last general election – if the referendum bid fails by 19 votes, I’ll be giggling rather a lot…).
But the real question is, why is Cameron still backing a referendum? It naturally made sense after Labour had foolishly promised one on the old constitution – the Tories could do nothing but offer the same, or risk re-opening old eurosceptic divisions within the party. But once Labour and the Lib Dems backed down after the shift from being a constitution to a reforming treaty with more or less the same effect – likely the only way it could get past the decidedly misinformed British public* – what was Cameron’s thinking in continuing to back a referendum?
Initially, I thought it was obvious – he reckoned there was no chance of a referendum being granted, so it would have been a great bit of anti-Labour propaganda to throw out to the primarily eurosceptic party faithful. But now I’m not so sure it’s that simple.
You see, if Cameron had any sense of international realpolitik, he’d realise that he needs to maintain good relations with as many EU political leaders as he possibly can if he’s going to have any hope of doing deals in Brussels when he becomes Prime Minister. It’s basic diplomacy – act nice towards people, they’re more likely to accommodate your wishes. (And this applies just as much, if not more, if you want to pull out of the EU – if you’re an EU withdrawalist, make the case to the people at home, don’t piss off our European cousins. Because they’re the people you’re going to have to end up making all those lovely bilateral trade agreements with when you get your successful pull-out, and you surely want to ensure you get the best deals for your newly “independent” Britain by not pissing them all off.)
Yet since becoming Tory leader all Cameron’s done, on the rare occasions he’s ventured into the field of EU policy, is indicate he’s all up for antagonism. First he started going on about pulling Tory MEPs out of the huge centre-right EPP group in the European Parliament (meaning, as far as I can tell, that they’d be able to have even less impact on proceedings and lose a number of committee posts), now he seems to have been going all out to get an amendment in today’s vote on the Lisbon Treaty to secure that blasted referendum again.
This all plays great to the eurosceptic crowd at home, no doubt (though not great enough to gain a great many prodigal UKIPers to return to the fold, it would seem), but pisses off everyone on the continent – even those who are sympathetic to Tory doubts over the current direction of the EU. If/when Cameron becomes PM, he’s going to have even fewer friends on the continent than Gordon Brown – who at least our European cousins have a certain amount of respect for, while distrusting him, considering him supremely arrogant, and being annoyed with his lack of participation in EU affairs.
But now, the day of the crunch vote, there is apparently a genuine chance that the sums could just add up and that Cameron could get enough bodies behind him (with Labour and Lim Dem defections and abstentions) to get the referendum amendment passed after all. (For the record: I think this is still unlikely, but with Lib Dems openly rebelling and a number of Labourites likely to vote with the Tories as well, you never know…)
This makes little sense to me. The EU is not a contentious enough issue to get real votes behind it at general elections – if it were, William Hague would have won back in 2001 with his “Seven Days to Save the Pound” scaremongering nonsense. This little fight over a referendum was a great idea for a bit of domestic political propaganda when there was no chance of winning, but Cameron seems to be genuinely trying to get this amendment passed.
If he succeeds, three things will happen:
1) The UK will not be able to pass the Lisbon Treaty, setting the EU back another 2-7 years (it took two years to renegotiate the old constitution into the Lisbon Treaty, and that was in any case the result of five years of negotiations following the failure that was the Treaty of Nice back in 2001, which was meant to sort out all the problems the Lisbon Treaty is only now tackling)
2) The rest of the EU will be mortally pissed off with the UK in general, and Cameron in particular
3) There will still not be any procedure in place for an EU member state to leave the Union
The last of these is the most important in trying to work out what Cameron’s all about. After all, he’s allowed William Hague to spout off about how any future Tory government would hold a referendum on not just the Lisbon Treaty, but any subsequent EU treaty. That, surely, should have been enough?
But, of course, EU referenda are a slippery slope. Have one on a treaty, the next thing you know you’ll be having ones on membership – just as the likes of Jimmy Goldsmith’s old Referendum Party and their longer-lasting rivals UKIP have been pushing towards for over a decade, and as the pro-EU Lib Dems under Nick Clegg are now calling for in the hope a (likely) victory for the pro-membership lobby will shut up the sceptics once and for all.
Cameron’s cranking up of the rhetoric over the EU (not actually saying he’s against the Lisbon Treaty, you’ll note, but not saying anything in its favour in the full knowledge that the entire Tory press is against the thing) has been keeping the referendum campaign the most high-profile it’s been for years. Yet, unlike during the referendum campaigns in France and the Netherlands, there has not been a concurrent increase in public debate about the EU itself, or of public knowledge about the thing the referendum is meant to be about.
It’s all about the referendum itself – the casting of votes. The illusion of participation. It’s populism, plain and simple. The thing the referendum is about doesn’t matter in the slightest.
But wait – what if he succeeds and the referendum is called? The likely result is a big “no” to the Lisbon Treaty, based on brainwashing and/or misinformation by the eurosceptic – and euroignorant – press (see * below again) combined with the public’s lack of real interest in the EU.
And therein lies the cunning plan. Because that would enable Cameron to draw out the whole populist process for years with countless follow-up referenda. It would also provide a handy buffer against the withdrawalists by taking away the Lisbon Treaty’s introduction of procedures by which a member state can quit the EU**, meaning he can safely play around without the threat of having to take the EU-bashing to the logical extreme and giving up membership.
Of course, this would still piss off all the other EU member states no end. Cameron would position himself as the pariah of Europe, pissing everyone off by his obstructionism and stalling EU reform yet further.
But this could, in itself, be a good thing. Back when the Lisbon Treaty was still called (and still was) a constitution, from time to time I would hope that the thing got completely rejected time and again, forcing the EU’s bigwigs to take a step back and start again from scratch – preferably building some kind of multi-speed or multi-tier union in its place.
And although Cameron’s barely said a word about his real thinking on the EU, he did drop a few hints that he was after radical reform a year ago – albeit very vague hints that met with almost no response bar criticism, except from the usual suspects.
Cameron’s approach even at the time struck me as (almost) an advocation of a multi-tier Europe – exactly what I’d like – and his obstructionism over the Lisbon Treaty (and all subsequent EU treaties) could be just what we need to get real reform.
Because for the last decade or more, the debate over EU reform has been dominated by one goal – how to make the existing EU structures work after the expansion to 27 member states? This has always been the wrong question. It shouldn’t have been “how do we get what we’ve got to work?”, but “is what we’ve got the right option?” – and I’ve long been of the opinion that it’s not. I am, after all, pro-EU – but not pro-this EU. The only trouble is, no one with any influence has been advocating such an approach, and everyone with any power has apparently been happy to just go with the EU flow – muddling along and making do.
Of course, this is reading far too much into what Cameron’s been up to. He’s not a chap to make his aims clear, as anyone who’s been trying to keep tabs of mostly nonexistent Tory policy over the last year or so will be more than aware. But sod what’s best for Britain, a British referendum – and a no vote in that referendum – could well be the best thing for the EU…
* Not elitism (for a change) – the old constitution was 250-odd pages of complex legal jargon that was almost impossible to follow; the Lisbon treaty is a similar number of short paragraphs referring to numbered sub-clauses in umpteen previous European treaties in order to amend them, and thus even more difficult to comprehend. Plus, of course, the dishonesty of the eurosceptic press and hyperbole of eurosceptic campaigners is hardly making life easier.
** Despite the eurosceptic attacks on Nick Clegg over his calls for a vote on EU membership, after the Lisbon Treaty is ratified this would give them their first ever chance to get what they want. Their lack of enthusiasm for his plan is, I reckon, largely because they know that they can’t win that battle just yet…