It’s like the night before Christmas
It feels a little like Christmas with all the feverish expectations and speculations, hopes and requests: On Friday (18 January) David Cameron, the UK’s Prime Minister, is finally going to make his speech about Europe or, to be quite precise, what he perceives as Britain’s future inside or outside the European Union.
Perhaps, I had better qualify that again. Mr Cameron has already made it clear that he cannot envisage Britain’s future outside the European Union though he does not want the country to enter the eurozone or not in the foreseeable future. So he has already cut off one possible line of argument and policy-making.
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Advice has been pouring in from all directions as have various threats and warnings.
German and American politicians have warned Mr Cameron that he must not take Britain out of the EU, something that he has no intention of doing and could not, in any case, simply announce in a speech tomorrow. British politicians from all three main parties are warning him that a referendum in itself would be a bad idea because it might take Britain out of the EU (not a given by any means) or because its very promise would introduce a period of uncertainty that would be bad for business or bad for political life. These politicians do not seem averse to referendums on other subjects such as Scotland’s independence from the UK and most of them have now started to say that powers need to be reclaimed from the European Union.
Some business leaders as well as that representative of very big business, the CBI have echoed the warnings about both a possible exit and even a referendum. Others, as City AM and the Daily Mail have pointed out, think that it would be an excellent idea to call an IN/OUT referendum though the time-scale is not clearly defined. These business leaders think that the full membership as it exists now is not in Britain's interests and ought to be changed.
The Conservative Party, predictably, has come up with many options, depending on the speaker of the moment. Some of the older confirmed supporters of the EU like Kenneth Clarke, Minister without Portfolio, and Lord Heseltine, unabashed by the fact that they proved to be wrong about the euro, have been vociferous in their demands that David Cameron make his intention always to stay in the EU absolutely clear and, just in case, should avoid any referendums.
At the other end of the spectrum we have the slightly muddled articles written by Daniel Hannan MEP who has conjured up a Churchill-like image for Cameron and has suggested that, if needs be, a complete break should be announced. But only if needs be as Mr Hannan is convinced the Mr Cameron will achieve repatriation of powers by the simple threat of an IN/OUT referendum.
Somewhere between those two we find the Fresh Start Group that has, with the help of Open Europe, produced a manifesto full of suggestions for reforming the EU and creating a different membership status for the UK without exiting or even threatening to exit.
It is safe to say that David Cameron will not be able to satisfy all these different groups, let alone the various strands of public opinion. It is, however, also safe to say that he will probably dissatisfy all of them and leave a feeling of confusion as to what he is really intending to do.
The probability is that he will promise a referendum though whether he will be able to give details now is questionable. Any referendum will be called after the next election and that, in itself, introduces a note of uncertainty: will the Conservatives win it and if they do not, will the Labour Party find itself forced into a similar promise?
Not only is it sensible to wait on the next treaty, if it happens (and there are signs that there is no appetite for that among EU politicians), but at present there would be no majority for a referendum in the House of Commons so a Bill would fall.
So a probable referendum around 2016 or 2017, especially if there is a new treaty by then, though, having whipped up expectations, the Prime Minister will probably have to promise one even without a new treaty. What will the question be? It is unlikely that the speech will be absolutely clear on that, as so many things will happen by then but it is very likely that the IN option will be qualified in some way with references to a reform or repatriation of powers. It is even possible that the referendum will be a tripartite one: IN, OUT or REFORM, however the last of these may be defined.
In the meantime, David Cameron will have to return to his promise to repatriate powers, something that has not been done so far though it was part of the Conservative Manifesto in 2010. All the talk of repatriating Justice and Home Affairs powers has led to nothing despite the misconception produced by some journalists that the UK is no longer a member of the European Arrest Warrant. To the contrary, some of the block opt-outs negotiated by the previous government have been reversed and the Home Secretary has agreed to a number of opt-ins, which have not been much publicized, possibly because the details are a little hard to grasp.
If David Cameron merely repeats his supposed intention "to losen Britain's ties with Europe" or, in other words, renegotiate in some undefined fashion the terms of the membership he will lay himself open to demands for an explanation of how he intends to do this and for some action immediately.
The same applies to repeated promises of repatriation of powers. His great hope will be that the mere sentiments together with a clearly promised referendum will satisfy a sufficient number of people for the subject to disappear temporarily from the political discourse. There seems little chance of that.
Helen Szamuely is a writer and researcher on political affairs, based in London