David Cameron Thinks A Referendum After 2015 On The EU Will Pull In Votes. It Might Be Too Late By Then Though
Martin McCauley writes from Brussels: Nerves are jangling here as David Cameron tries to win the next election by promising British voters to offer them a say on whether to leave the European Union.
The Tories are desperate to come up with initiatives that would pull in votes. Their main competitor on the right, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), is creeping up in the polls. Regarded not so long ago as a bunch of nutters, UKIP is now the first choice of 12 per cent of voters. They are anti-immigration and unashamedly nationalist. They are the nearest thing in England to Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party. Salmond’s main point is that a Scottish government could run his country better and make everyone more prosperous. This is a big ask. He is betting on oceans of oil and gas being discovered in the North Sea. If that happens, he can ride to victory. But what if none are found? Then it’s disaster.
So would a vote on leaving the European Union be popular? Britons are naturally anti-European in their politics. Over the ages the country has never joined others except to maintain the balance of power. Hence alliances with France were only fair weather ones. London has never sided with the strongest power in Europe. That would weaken Britain’s ability to play both sides. So one can regard joining the EU as a change of heart. The problem is that the political class decided it was in the country’s interests to join Brussels but the public have never really accepted this.
Threatening to leave might win concessions. That may be behind the referendum. Brussels is being battered by economic storms at present. It has never been so weak. So go for the jugular when you can.
There are drawbacks. Half of Britain’s trade is with the EU. Given the parlous state of the UK economy at present is this the time to start tinkering with access to European markets? Supporters of independence point to Norway and Switzerland as shining examples of what can be achieved by avoiding the shackles of Brussels’ bureaucracy. Wait a moment. Norway is oil and gas rich and has discovered even more. Switzerland has the hardest currency in Europe and is trying to prevent desperate foreigners from parking more of their liquid assets there. Britain is not comparable.
A much more powerful argument is that the euro is doomed and will lead to a breakup of the European Union. Better to get out while the ship is still sailing and not sinking. The management of the euro has been catastrophic. Such monumental incompetence has rarely been seen before. Greece is in turmoil. The government reduces spending and increases taxes. Greeks are not willing to make these sacrifices. A safe bet is that Athens will leave the euro next year. Take Spain. Deeper cuts and higher taxes are leading to violent demonstrations. Those on the streets are the young and middle class. Half of those under 25 are unemployed. Catalunya’s response is to advocate independence. The province is the richest in Spain. If that happened other regions might follow. The euro would have broken up one of the oldest countries in Europe.
So the decision on whether to stay or not to stay in the EU is not cut and dried. Five years ago it would have been clear that Britain should stay in the EU. Now the situation has changed dramatically. Wait long enough and the decision may be taken elsewhere. My guess is that the EU of the future will consist of Germany, Holland, Finland and a few other fiscally prudent countries. London can revert to playing a balance of power game in Europe. Only this time it will have no aces.