David Cameron leaves things late. Leadership by essay crisis, it has been called, a nod to procrastination by generations of students. But his belated response to the mounting political turmoil over Britain’s membership in the EU—a speech proposing an in/out referendum—won’t save him from disaster in the 2015 general election.
Some early responses were encouraging—outrage from EU parliamentarians, a disapproving Obama administration, cries of good riddance in France, and, according to one grandee, “shock” in Davos—but British voters were not so easily taken in. Polls showed the Conservatives trailing Labour by a little less, mainly on the back of a few percentage points grabbed from the euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party, but Cameron’s speech was no game-changer. UKIP still stood at around 10 percent. UKIP, which largely draws its support from the right, took just 3 percent of the vote in 2010, but that was enough to cost the Tories some 20 seats—and an overall majority.
That’s the math forcing Cameron to call for a referendum he had always opposed. With his own (largely euroskeptic) Conservatives mutinous, UKIP polling in the teens, the economy faltering, and 2015 drawing closer, something had to be done. Cameron’s calculation was straightforward. With no other establishment party (for now) backing a referendum, and with UKIP (thanks to Britain’s first-past-the-post system) having little prospect of winning a parliamentary seat, let alone forming a government, the Tories are tempting euroskeptics with the only chance of the in-or-out showdown for which they have been pining. By contrast, voting UKIP in 2015 would divide the euroskeptic vote, help (europhile) Labour and the (euromaniacal) Liberal Democrats, and risk throwing that opportunity away.
The referendum timetable has been organized to underline that point. Nothing much will happen for now. Instead, Cameron will go to the polls in 2015 with a request for a mandate “to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners.” Once those negotiations have been concluded there will be a “referendum [in 2017, most likely] with a very simple in or out choice.” The referendum is thus dependent on Cameron’s reelection: Vote for him, or the nation-state gets it.
That so many UKIP supporters have yet to be won over is, to a degree, a reflection of the way the party has become an expression of broader popular discontent with the liberal status quo. UKIP is “about” more than the EU. But there’s something else: On closer inspection Cameron’s proposal looks less than convincing, and that’s even if we ignore the fact that his chances of victory in 2015 are on the order of a snowball in hell, or Romney in California.
There is a credible way for the U.K. to exit the EU (it involves Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty; I’ll spare you the technicalities), but Cameron’s “negotiations” are not it. Anything involving the repatriation of enough powers to impress enough euroskeptics would need a new treaty to be agreed on by each EU country, a tall order for reasons that are both practical (there are currently 27 member states) and philosophical. The EU is driven by the idea of “ever closer union,” a process that only moves in one direction. Once a competence has been transferred from the national level to the EU it cannot—must not—be handed back. Were Britain to win an exception to this principle, it would make a shambles of what the EU is meant to be. “Europe,” warned the EU’s prominenti, is not “à la carte.” Britain was either in or, well, the rest was left unsaid by just about everyone other than the French.
Cameron understands this. He has framed his proposed negotiations—they should be part of a wider effort to create “a leaner, less bureaucratic union”—in a way designed to address this concern. If the broader Brussels menu could be made more attractive, Britain would need fewer special orders. Given the rhetoric in Berlin (sometimes), Stockholm, Prague, and elsewhere in the EU’s north and east in favor of Britain’s more free market tack, this is an approach that ought to make sense.
But talk is cheap. When it comes to actually doing something to reduce the Brussels deadweight, the EU’s more economically liberal governments typically fall silent, still in thrall to the European dream to which most Britons—who were told they were joining a “common market”—have never subscribed. And when Cameron asks for support for a less dirigiste treaty, that dream (or nightmare) will stand in his way. For once negotiations start, where will they end? After all, the EU’s electorates are restless, and profoundly divided about what they want from “Europe.”