To all intents and purposes, a referendum is already taking place. Europe is having a referendum on Britain.
Once David Cameron vetoed the EU fiscal pact, a process of political merger began which did not include Britain. When it is over, the 'remorseless logic' of closer political union will create a core set, or perhaps an EU-wide grouping, of countries who have their budgets signed off in Brussels and Berlin.
It won't be called the EU, just as the fiscal pact is not technically an EU treaty. But it will be the EU minus us. Those waiting for a formal EU treaty will probably be waiting a long time. That would involve at least half a dozen referenda and it will be avoided. Europe is getting on with things without the UK.
With economic membership equivalent to political membership, it will be untenable for Britain to have anything to do with it. The ensuing treaties would mark the end of national sovereignty, but anyway the public would not accept it. The only things to consider about the relationship will be the social, legal and labour rules, which the British press and public have shown considerable disregard for.
It will therefore be impossible for a British referendum on the EU to not be an in-or-out referendum. Voting merely on items such as court jurisdiction and the working time directive will be absurd, given the meat of membership is already wrapped up.
This is entirely correct. The EU will have so much power over the public of its member states that anything less than a poll of the project in its entirety would be undemocratic. If, as seems likely, the public vote 'no', we could then negotiate continued terms on aspects we do want, including agreements on free movement of people and a common market.
There are practical reasons why Cameron's professed desire for a vote on aspects of EU laws should mutate into a full in-or-out referendum. For a start, it is impossible to conceive of how a piecemeal vote would work. The government could negotiate its opt-outs, such as employment law, and then put the result to the British people, but what would be the point of voting on something which has already taken place? Alternatively, it could ask people to vote for opt-outs which it cannot guarantee securing. It would actually be highly unlikely. Having voted on it, negotiators in Brussels would know the British delegation's hands were tied. They would have no leverage, especially given that our vote is no longer necessary for fiscal changes.
Cameron's hope for a more moderate vote is a symptom of the treacherous waters he is trying to navigate. On the one hand he must placate anger in his own party – and outside – at the dangerous moral and economic processes which are underway. On the other, he is terrified of isolating Britain. His halfway compromise will not be successful. European federalists are doing precisely what Tory eurosceptics always suspected they would – consolidating power across national boundaries, pursuing a process which inevitably ends the concept of national sovereignty. Their actions, and the natural reaction of the British public, makes anything but an in-or-out vote absurd.
But the same process which means an in-or-out vote is inevitable also explains why it would be insane and self-regarding to hold one now. For a start, the public could not possibly know what it was voting for. It’s impossible to know what Europe will look like in even a year's time, let alone once a fiscal and political union is complete. And even that discounts the possibility of some catastrophic turn of events, possibly involving multiple defaults and exits. People would be voting on something which does not exist. They might as well vote for hoverboards.
With such a vast historic process taking place it would be strange, obsessive and deeply selfish to hold a vote now. No country is unaffected by what is happening in Europe and the fact it is on our doorstep does not grant us a licence to worsen the situation. China, India, the United States – all these powerhouses are under the shadow of the eurozone crisis. To hold a referendum on our membership now would shame us in the eyes of the world. It would be a PR disaster for Britain and turn us into a laughing stock. It is an insane idea. It is not, as Liam Fox says, a recipe for inertia. It is evidence of a capacity for reason and moderation.
This is not the time for a vote. But when the referendum does come it must be a vote for the European project as a whole. And our answer, if we wish to remain a country in any coherent political sense of the word, should be 'no'.
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