Today David Cameron gave his backing to a EU referendum and hailed it as the 'cleanest, neatest and simplest way' of giving the public a say on Britain's role in Europe. But there is one detail that will upset many in the Conservative Party: The PM explicitly ruled out an in/out referendum.
So what does that mean for Britain and the EU?
The only alternative to a straight in/out referendum is a referendum on a 'new settlement for Britain'. New ECFR/yougov polling data suggests that voters would indeed support a new EU deal for Britain. So the question of a referendum would focus on the renegotiation strategy of the government. Various options are possible in such a scenario: (1) Do you support the governments’ 'new EU deal'? - or - (2) Do you want the government to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership? Interestingly, a 'no vote' would not change anything - a 'yes vote' would either confirm or empower the government to seek a new EU settlement. (3) A third idea would be an unlikely "three-option referendum" including an option of complete withdrawal from the EU. But overall the focus on renegotiation seems to be a pragmatic strategy with minimum risk attached (and it looks possible to win such a referendum!).
Of course the risk is elsewhere: First of all Cameron needs a miracle to win the next election - and then there is the 'UKIP factor' which may also cause some headaches among Tory strategists. And above all David Cameron needs to convince his own party that his strategy is in the interest of the Tories - a hard sell for a party that has become more eurosceptic over the past few years.
But let's look at the idea of renegotiating Britain's EU membership. Obviously nobody in the other 26 member states is very fond of doing this. In Europe the UK is increasingly seen as a country without any willingness to engage in anything 'European' - and many think that there are other, more pressing problems to deal with. So asking for any repatriation of powers is a non-starter as most 'repatriation' demands require unanimity among EU governments. Cameron and Hague have alienated far too many EU partners to solve this diplomatically.
But David Cameron seems to have found a way around this problem. He is convinced that in order to manage the euro crisis the EU (and especially the eurozone) needs to change fundamentally. For example, he supports the idea of having two EU budgets - one for the eurozone and a general EU budget. (make sure you watch the upcoming EU budget negotiations...) The political strengthening of the eurozone is a priority for many EU policymakers and may even include a eurozone Parliament. In other words, David Cameron can sit back, relax and support all those Eurozone ideas over the next years – and by default he will get a new EU settlement for Britain. Throw in some cosmetic opt-outs on social issues (but will he dare to use the 'nuclear' JHA opt-out?) and some minor budgetary concessions - and voilà - a new deal for Britain - without the need to tear apart existing treaties or annoy (the last) remaining UK allies.
This also explains why David Cameron wants to wait with the referendum until after the next election - the eurozone will need some time to sort itself out. But at the same time David Cameron has little bargaining power in this process, he does not even have any control over the outcome – he just seems concerned about giving it the right spin in Britain. A win-win strategy for both Europe and Britain? Maybe - but we should not hide the fact that this is the consolidation of a two tier Europe, or in other words, the end of the EU as we know it.
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