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Smoke and mirrors over 'Brexit': key questions on the path to the EU referendum

Merkel and Cameron, 2011.Wikicommons/Sebastian Zvez. Some rights reserved.The UK's path to a referendum
on its EU membership is already a central issue for David Cameron's new
government. Ministers are set to travel to Brussels, Berlin and other capitals
ahead of an EU leaders' summit at the end of June – opening up negotiation on
Britain's demands for reform, opt-outs, new language and more. Expect much heat
and dust, smoke and mirrors but not much light in this debate.

Cameron wants to be able to tell
the British public he has negotiated an important, beneficial deal for the UK.
But this is unlikely – small concessions not major changes are the likely order
of the day – and so there will be a political charade around the talks and
eventual outcome.

There are key political
questions here: what are the chances Cameron will bring anything substantive
back from Brussels? Will other supporters of the UK's EU membership back
Cameron or will they run their own separate campaigns – a divided 'yes'
campaign?

How much will the Tories
split? How much may the UK's four countries differ during the campaign and when
they vote? And what will a 'yes' vote mean – will it cement the UK's current
half-in, half-out status in the UK, together with its ever lower influence over
the EU's strategic direction?

Cameron's game

Cameron's referendum gambit
is at one level a clever one. He managed to keep restive Tory sceptics fairly
quiet during the 2010-2015 coalition government by the promise of a referendum
on EU membership after he negotiated a new and better deal for the UK. His
gambit is that other pro-EU groups in the UK, which includes a veritable 1975-style
line-up of parties, business and unions (Labour, LibDems, SNP, Greens, TUC,
CBI, and more), will all argue, with some large-ish part of the Tories, for a 'yes'
and ensure the UK stays in the EU.

Eurosceptic Tories –
estimated to include anywhere from 60-100 MPs in the new House of Commons
intake – will campaign against, alongside UKIP and a fair chunk of the UK
media. But Cameron thinks he can manage this – precisely because he is holding
a referendum and undertaking a renegotiation, in contrast to John Major in the
1990s, when the Tory government collapsed under the weight of its infighting
over Europe. Cameron's aim of dragging other parties behind him, as he solves
(he hopes) the Tory EU problem for a generation, is a serious challenge for
other pro-EU groups and parties.

Will it be a divided 'yes' campaign?

It seems inevitable that the 'yes'
campaign will be divided at least to some extent. Within just a week of the
general election, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has differed with Cameron
over human rights, said it would support the UK taking its fair share of the
EU's refugees, demanded greater devolution of powers than Cameron is offering
and reiterated that it is pro-EU and doesn't see the need for a referendum.

Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's
leader, has also repeated her demand for a 'double-lock' on the referendum, so
that if any of the UK's four countries vote 'yes', even if England votes 'no', there
shouldn't she says be a 'Brexit'. Cameron won't concede this but it sets the
SNP up for arguing for a new independence referendum should England vote 'no'
and Scotland 'yes'

The SNP is likely to make a
much more pro-European case for staying in the EU than the Tories, and the
chances of the SNP being part of an all-party campaign must be negligeable.
Given its anti-austerity stance, the SNP will also need to make a case for
change in the EU – but a positive case rather than a sceptic withdrawal, or the
case for more opt-outs. Polls tend to put Scottish pro-EU opinion ahead of that
in England, and it will be interesting to see how the SNP's arguments impact in
Scotland and beyond once the campaign proper gets under way.

What will the other UK
parties do? Labour saw its vote wiped out in Scotland for a mixture of reasons,
but one of those was clearly its close partnering with the Tories in the
'Better Together' campaign for a 'no' in the Scottish independence referendum.
Will it campaign separately or would it join in a nationwide 'Better Together
in the EU' campaign – surely not a good idea? And when Cameron produces his
likely-to-be very small renegotiation rabbits from his hat, will Labour go
along with the charade that these are significant, or will they say these are small
or even negative but that the EU is positive for different reasons?

The chances are that Labour
will try to hoe its own path but it will, like Cameron, want to make a
relatively 'Little England' case for British national interest and the economic
benefits of membership and shy away from any strong comments on the political
benefits of working together. If that is the cautious path they tread, the SNP
and Greens will surely be making a much broader, more pro-EU argument on issues
from migration to human rights.

There is of course already a
putative cross-party campaign vehicle, 'British Influence' – with names like
Ken Clarke, Peter Mandelson and Danny Alexander on its board suggesting a
rather old-style approach to a joint campaign.

Will the SNP pool its voice
in such a grouping – it seems unlikely. And surely the LibDems – decimated after
losing seat after seat to their erstwhile coalition partners – will not be
looking to help Cameron in his EU gambit, so how will they campaign around a
'yes' in the referendum?

Will Cameron get significant concessions out of
Brussels?

It seems highly unlikely that
Cameron will get anything other than small changes to the UK's position in the
EU. There is no political will amongst the other 27 member states to debate
major changes either for all member states (beyond measures to continue
tackling the euro crisis) or just to help the UK, at the present time.
Germany's finance minister Wolfgang Schauble took time off briefly from
attacking Greece's Syriza government to criticise George Osborne within days of
the Tories’ election win.
Nor is there time to negotiate treaty change and have it ratified – even if
there were the political will – before a referendum in 2016 or 2017.

Yet despite widespread annoyance
at the UK's behaviour in the EU down the years, not least recently, most member
states would rather the UK remained inside the Union and will surely offer
some, albeit very minor changes and concessions. There may be draft protocols
and political statements committing to change in future treaties, together with
some tweaking of the rules within the existing treaties to give Cameron a bone
to take back to the voters. He may, after tough talks, get some change to the
rules on access to benefits for EU migrants, but no change to the fundamental
principle of free movement of labour.

Cameron is also to a
considerable extent pushing for things that largely already exist
– for instance powers flowing from Brussels to member states is enshrined in
the EU's 'subsidiarity' principle. And more powers for national parliaments to
challenge laws proposed by the European Commission is in the 2009 Lisbon
Treaty.

Former LibDem MEP Andrew Duff
sets out an elegant explanation of the existing 'yellow and orange' cards'
powers that national parliaments have, noting that since 2009 the 'yellow' card
procedure has been activated successfully just twice, the 'orange' card never.
Yet, as he says, Cameron wants to make the orange tint a bit closer to red. This
is fiddling at the margins.

Cameron also wants some more
protection for the euro-outs to ensure the 19 euro countries don't gang up on
the 9 non-euro countries not least in ways that may impact adversely on the
City of London. Cameron may achieve some political statement or protocol here
but this sort of split between euro ins and outs has not in fact been seen. Disagreements
are much more likely to go across both groups.

Will the referendum cement the UK's semi-detached
status in the EU?

Cameron is in fact behaving
rather like a very small EU member state – chasing the few things that most
matter to him while not being a serious player in any of the EU's most
important business.

The UK has been notably
absent from the high-level strategic negotiations with Putin over Ukraine, exercises
its opt-out over the vital issue of refugees and migrants arriving across the
Mediterranean (as with many other justice and home affairs issues), and of
course already has opt-outs from the euro, and the Schengen border-free area.
In many ways, the UK is more semi-detached from the EU than Norway (outside the
EU but not only in the European Economic Area but also a member of Schengen).

Under the Tory-LibDem
coalition government, Cameron has secured for the UK a dwindling influence in
the EU. To the consternation of many within the EU, and the US from the
outside, the UK's voice and diplomatic and political skills and influence were ever
more seldom heard from 2010-2015 – whether on enlargement to the western Balkans
and Turkey, the Ukraine crisis, the euro crisis (apart from carping from the side-lines)
or the associated major youth unemployment crisis across southern Europe.

How the Tories approach
repealing the UK's Human Rights Act  –
and any challenge to the UK's membership of the European Convention on Human
Rights – while separate from the EU may also impact on EU debates in the next
two years. The EU's Charter of Rights applies to the UK (despite a protocol for
the UK and Poland explaining its political limits in the Lisbon Treaty) and
joining the Council of Europe and so the European Convention has been part of
the political criteria for EU membership since the 1990s as set out for the new
central and east European member states.

Taking the UK's semi-detached
status yet further, Cameron is said to want an opt-out from the EU's founding
goal of 'ever closer union among the peoples of Europe'. If he gets this, it
will make little practical difference, but it will certainly symbolically
cement the UK's special, half-in, half-out status within the EU. Other member
states are unlikely to give way on any substantive measures they don't agree
with, but dealing with the recurring UK problem by a special status for the UK,
through cosmetic and one-off adjustments, may well be a price many are willing
to pay.

This will be a big challenge
for the variegated 'yes' campaign. Of course, the 'no' campaign will have to
explain what alternative to membership they see as desirable – surely not a
Norwegian 'fax' democracy where it is part of the single market but with no say
in the rules? But the 'no' side will be easily able to point to divisions on
the 'yes' side,  and to those who
contradict Cameron and say he brought home very little. And surely the SNP,
perhaps Labour, perhaps the LibDems, will not participate in a Cameron game of
smoke and mirrors to pretend changes are bigger than they are, or to support
changes that aren't even desirable.

The UK's future in the EU

A vital debate lies ahead for
the UK on its position in the European Union. But expect much smoke and mirrors
at least from Cameron. On the positive side, forty years after its first
referendum on EU membership, and after forty years of being a largely
recalcitrant and difficult member state, it is maybe time for the UK to decide
if it wants to be part of the EU or not.

But the outcome – if it is a
'yes' vote – may be less clear than that. With existing opt-outs, and whatever package
Cameron negotiates, the UK's semi-detached status is likely to be further
reinforced. The UK as a 'Little Englander' bit part player in the EU is the
unattractive but most likely outcome for the foreseeable future. Yet at least
that would leave the chance open for a future, non-Tory government to play a
fuller and more positive role and rebuild British influence in the EU.

But a 'yes' is far from a
foregone conclusion. While current polls tend to show the 'yes' vote ahead, it
is early days, and many people are undecided, as well as highly uninformed
about the EU; and the UK's eurosceptic media is a force to be reckoned with.

So a 'Brexit' cannot be ruled
out – the UK will have withdrawn from cooperation in Europe, and downgraded
itself in terms of both regional and global influence across a range of vital
issues. And if England votes 'no' and Scotland 'yes' then there will surely be
a strong call for a new independence referendum in Scotland. And a perhaps less
likely but not impossible scenario would be if 'yes' votes in Scotland, Wales
and Northern Ireland were to push a divided but tending to 'no' England over
the line to a 'yes', then a different and major constitutional row will surely
break out.

Cameron has unleashed a
process that he will not be able to fully control, and one that will have major
impacts on British political dynamics and the UK's constitutional future at
home and in the EU in the coming two years. The Tories will be split during the
campaign, but some of the biggest challenges are now for the pro-EU opposition
parties to decide how and with whom to campaign, to get a 'yes' without being
the support act to Cameron's EU-Little England gambit.

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