Welcome to a year of painful and unnecessary debate. In the end, the UK is likely to stay inside the EU, for fear of something worse. Continued uncomfortable membership is its likely fate.
Here then are seven points about that strategically vital decision.
First, the renegotiation and the referendum are an unnecessary irritant, but one with potentially serious consequences. No change in the UK’s relationship with the EU was in the offing. The sensible thing for a Conservative would have been to let this sleeping dog lie. The prime minister did not do this, for reasons of internal party management. Now we have to live with the results.
Second, the premise of the renegotiation is foolish. Mr Cameron’s position has been that the UK’s “best future lay within a reformed EU”. The implication is that the UK’s future does not lie in the EU as it is now, but that he can deliver a radical renegotiation that would rectify this. This is an unconvincing position, as Eurosceptic critics have pointed out. The changes he is seeking are modest, at best, and what he will get will almost certainly be less than he seeks. His envisaged changes in welfare payments, in particular, (even if achieved) would barely affect immigration, the most sensitive issue. Eurosceptics will argue that, since the EU is fundamentally unreformed, the logic of the prime minister’s premise is exit. Alas, they will be right.
Third, the debate will plunge into a mass of technical detail. But the decision is essentially strategic. It is about whether the best future for the UK is as an at least notionally independent sovereign state or as a member of a complex and messy partnership of European states. The big justification for leaving is that the UK has long been able to sustain democratic self-government and that no other arrangement could be as legitimate. The big argument against is that the UK, with less than 1 per cent of the world’s population and less than 3 per cent of its output, can achieve what it wants more effectively from within the European club. The UK’s main allies believe the latter. So do I.
Fourth, while the choice is strategic, the detailed issues are too complex for the public to judge. It is inevitable, therefore, that the referendum will ultimately be decided by fear, hope and, not least, trust. The public is more likely to trust those who argue for the merits of staying in and so for the status quo, with which at least they are familiar. It is also hard to argue that the EU will do dreadful things to the UK when it has not done so hitherto. The alleged obstacles to labour market flexibility have, for example, not prevented extraordinarily effective post-crisis adjustments.
Fifth, while a vote to stay is a vote for an uncomfortable status quo, a vote to exit is a vote for the unknown. Voters in the referendum will not know what the objectives of the new negotiations might be and how long they will last. They will not know who would be in charge of those negotiations, since the prime minister is likely to have resigned. They will not know how remaining members of the EU would react. They will not know how Scotland would respond to this new situation — though an exit from the UK has become less credible at present oil prices. Also, they will not know how business would respond. A “No” vote would be a leap into the abyss.
Sixth, the intellectually coherent alternative to staying inside the EU is full exit, that is, a move to relations governed by the rules of the World Trade Organisation. All other alternatives would force the UK to accept many of the most onerous rules of the EU, while giving it a far smaller voice in reaching them. Norway and Switzerland are, for example, bound by rules on free movement of people. Switzerland is embedded in a web of 120 bilateral treaties agreed between unequal partners. If it is to be truly sovereign, the UK must abandon all the privileges of membership.
Seventh, if the outcome is decisive, the issue is likely to be put to bed for some decades. If it is not, the referendum might resolve nothing. This is particularly likely, if, as seems plausible, the Eurosceptic drift of the Conservative party continues. But the longer-term outcome also depends on what is going to happen inside the rest of the EU. That, too, is increasingly unpredictable.
© Financial Times
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