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Britain, a referendum and an ever-closer reckoning

By Peter Wilding

The Eurozone crisis changes everything. If by the end of the year, the Eurozone is left limbless and the economy sits in deep freeze, the binary in/out argument for continuing EU membership will no longer be left just to Nigel Farage and the Tory Bufton Tufton’s out in the shires. If enough Tories don’t see that Margaret Thatcher’s continent-wide single market baby is worth protecting, which they don’t, then it won’t be long before they ask the people to foster it to the evil uncles in Brussels.

Such is the increasingly slippery slope to the final reckoning. First we had theMandelson referendum speech last Friday, then we had the Spectator’s James Forsyth suggesting the Tories would hold a post-renegotiation referendum as a ‘certainty’. Today the UK media again focus on a possible referendum. The FT, Guardian, Daily Mail and Sun all report that Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has promised to consider holding a referendum on UK membership of the European Union, claiming that:

“Whether there could be a case for there being a referendum more widely on Britain’s relationship with Europe as a new settlement evolves…that might be an issue whose time comes, but I don’t think that that is now.”

But the time may come quicker than anyone thinks. There are three things to consider here. The first is that all parties understand that Britain’s relationship with Europe is being fundamentally changed by the eurozone crisis, since it is both destroying the pro-Europeans hope that pragmatic Brits would always vote to be in a successful single market and it is underpinning eurosceptics’ predictions that the single currency members will forge a much closer political union with the UK on the outside. The squeezed eurorealist centre ground is losing out because the chief winner from the single market – business – is too frightened to be pushed above the parapet to say the unsayable: yes, Britain must stay in Europe to finish the job we started. We must forge the biggest single market in the world and we have allies who want and need us to do this job. But fair enough. It should be the politicians who make the case. They don’t because they are utterly clueless about how to respond to the relentless incoming artillery fire of EU fraud, waste, red tape and superstate pomposity from the papers their Bufton Tufton’s read. They are not given practical ammunition by anyone – not even the EU itself which would rather talk big than fight dirty.

The second fact to consider is that neither the PM or the Labour leader want a referendum. The last thing they want is to demolish the flawed but essential structure that enables them to win friends and influence people in the places that matter. The British people are of course never told that London is far from the surly runt in the European pack. Awkward, churlish and relentlessly suspicious of big ideas (like the euro), the UK can still command the agenda and build alliances. There would be nothing that Germany would like less than for Britain to abandon Europe to Latin backsliders and nothing France would like less than for Britain to abandon France to Germany. Surrounding this troika are allies for the picking. A referendum that says no ends 56 years of British foreign policy. So, since there is no Plan B, the status quo is always best. But referendum talk may become a self-fulfilling prophesy because politics will always trump policy. The Tories see a way to dish the kippers and Labour sees a way to get back their lost white working classes. In the tussle for power in 2015, diplomacy can go hang.

The third thing to realise is that this is a genuine tragedy. Not for the Eurozone which (but for the Germans) has the solution to their problems if only they had the courage to accept the logical inevitability of the currency union – fiscal union. But for Britain. The Times today reports the view of the former US Ambassador to NATO in which he lambasts Britain’s foreign policy as incoherent…

“Prime Minister Cameron’s coalition Government has yet to develop a coherent strategic vision for the United Kingdom’s role in a changing global landscape,” it says. “His coalition has downplayed the term ‘special relationship’ with the United States at the same time his Government has weakened its ties to Europe.

[Mr] Cameron’s handling of a decisive December 2011 European summit threatens to leave London isolated as Europe pursues further fiscal integration. Aside from pursuing a policy of ‘commercial diplomacy’ and robust development assistance, British foreign policy vision and strategy remain unclear.”

This is not what people should expect from a Cameron-Clegg duumvirate. History has a habit of punishing drift. Usually the people, demanding firm leadership, fail to get it and become beguiled by easy options. Edward Grey and Neville Chamberlain may have brought war closer in 1914 in 1939 simply because Germany was utterly unclear about how Britain would jump in the event of a crisis. We are at that stage now. Unless a clear view is pushed that Britain must lead in Europe at the very least to achieve the completion of the single market then the portmanteau for Greek euro exit might be followed by another sad word, Brexit.
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