Friday, 29 May 2015

Dear Mr Cameron: beware Murphy's Law

It took exactly 50 words for the Queen to set Britain on course for a moment in history that will define it for the forseeable future.

This is what she said: "My government will renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union and pursue reform of the European Union for the benefit of all member states. Alongside this, early legislation will be introduced to provide for an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017."

It took another 22 words for her to fudge the future of the United Kingdom: "My government will also bring forward legislation to secure a strong and lasting constitutional settlement, devolving wide-ranging powers to Scotland and Wales." Enough fudge there, methinks, to feed a palaceful of courtiers for several years.

So let's focus on the first union, the European one. In or out? A simple enough question, perhaps, but one that will dominate all political life until it is over and done with.  For David Cameron, the stakes could hardly be higher: his place in history, the future of his party, and the future of the country. No pressure, then.

When he unveiled his EU strategy in what became known as his Bloomberg speech in January 2013, I suggested that of the five most likely scenarios it was possible to imagine, all but one ended with his resignation. Scenario 4 went like this: "Cameron wins the election with an overall majority in the Commons, persuades the EU to negotiate a few more opt-outs for the UK, but not enough to satisfy his back-benchers. He says he'll urge voters to back the deal anyway, but more than 100 of his MPs refuse to follow him. The party splits and he resigns."

(Scenario 5 was: "As above, but the newly-negotiated deal is so good that it satisfies even Bill Cash. All Tory MPs line up behind him to vote Yes in the referendum, and the deal is overwhelmingly approved by voters. Cameron emerges triumphant and walks across the surface of the River Thames in celebration.")

We now know that Mr Cameron intends to resign anyway, whatever the outcome of the vote, before the next election. So the EU referendum, whether it's next year or the year after, is likely to be his last significant political act.

The sighs of exasperation at Britain's continuing ambivalence over its EU membership can be heard all the way from Lisbon in the west to Bucharest in the east. It's not as if our EU partners don't have other things to worry about, above all the still unresolved matter of Greece's slow slide towards bankruptcy.

So Mr Cameron will struggle to engage other leaders' full attention. They know he's committed to the referendum, and they know he'll need something to show for his pledge to deliver real reforms, especially on welfare benefits for citizens from other EU states. They want Britain to remain in the EU -- although frankly I wonder why, sometimes -- but more than anything, they want the "Britain problem" to go away.

A recent article in the New York Times referred to Britain's "reduced involvement — and seeming loss of stature — on the global stage". If the UK leaves the EU, it will look to the rest of the world as if we have finally turned our back on several centuries of global activism, both in our empire-building days and since.

If that is what a majority of British voters want, so be it. I'm sure we'd survive somehow. The people of Norway, for example, do not necessarily lead impoverished lives just because they have remained outside the EU and have no pretensions to be a global power. (Nor, it has to be said, do they rely as we do on being the preferred base of operations for a wide variety of multi-national corporations and a magnet for foreign investors.)

Mr Cameron insists that he wants the UK to stay in the EU. In which case, he would do well to read and memorise the advice offered by Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform. First, do not over-bid. Second, start making the case for membership, even at the cost of upsetting some of your own party's anti-EU headbangers. Third, start taking some initiatives in the EU rather than always sitting on the sidelines. Fourth, build alliances. And fifth, try to be a bit more European in the way you go about things: "British politicians tend to forget that their rambunctious style of domestic politics – involving confrontation, bluntness and a win-or-lose psychology – goes down badly in Brussels."

All of which is very much to the point. See, for example, the warning from the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius: “I find this process quite dangerous … The British population has got used to being repeatedly told: ‘Europe is a bad thing’, and the day they are asked to decide, the risk is that they will say: Well, you told us: ‘Europe is a bad thing’.”

David Cameron should also bear in mind Murphy's Law -- "anything that can go wrong, will go wrong" -- even if it is not yet enshrined in an EU treaty. If Greece crashes messily out of the eurozone, if a Commons majority of 12 gets whittled away to single figures, if George Osborne's new dose of welfare cuts goes down badly -- well, all bets are off.

Referendums have a nasty habit of becoming at least in part a judgement on a government's popularity. I can't help wondering what the chances are of Mr Cameron's lot still being flavour of the month by referendum time.

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