Cameron’s gamble

by Chris Bertram on January 24, 2013

Most readers will know by now that the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, yesterday pledged an in-out referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, to be held in the event that the Conservatives win the next general election. Cameron says that he will try to negotiate better terms for UK membership and that he hopes that he’ll be able to recommend these to the British people in 2017 or thereabouts. I thought CT should have a post on this, but the remarks below are very much off-the-cuff and not written on the basis of any expertise re EU politics.

The first thing is that this is entirely driven by domestic politics and, indeed, largely by the internal politics of the Tory Party. Cameron is in a difficult place, he’ll almost certainly have to run the next general election on unfavourable constituency boundaries and against a difficult-to-catastrophic economic background. He’s also under some threat from rivals in the Tory party. This way, he can try to fight the election on something other than his economic record, he can distance the Tories from his pro-Europe coalition partners and he can (temporarily at least) neutralise the right-wing of his own party and possibly stem the drift of Tory voters to the UK Independence Party.

(Of course this won’t be the only referendum happening. Scotland has a plebiscite on independence coming up. If the SNP opt for independence within the EU and Little England (plus Wales) pulls out, the end result may be customs posts at Gretna Green. Nobody can see that as an attractive prospect (well, possibly Alec Salmond).)

It’s a very dangerous strategy. Cameron hasn’t said much about the changed terms he wants from the EU, but it is safe to say that he wants more market and less political and social integration and horrible stuff such more “flexible” labour markets (aka worse terms for workers). If anything, the uncertainty around the referendum will have a dampening effect on an economy that is already under water, making it easier for Labour to the extent to which low growth and jobs remain the real issues in the election. And he’s effectively given his right-wing permission to box him in in any negotiations with the EU by demanding more and more British opt-outs perhaps even around questions central to the EU treaties, such as the free movement of labour.

It also isn’t clear that other European leaders have much of an incentive to give Cameron anything. Rather, they can bolster their own nationalist and European credentials by banging an anti-British drum. Some of the more market-oriented European politicians (Merkel maybe? the Swedes?) might see an opportunity to push through some weakening of workers’ rights, so there’s some possibility of a deal/sop-to-Cameron there. But it all looks rather thin.

Ed Miliband hasn’t made the obvious political move to neutralise Cameron by matching his referendum pledge. It isn’t clear yet whether that’s a mistake. That may depend on the salience of the European issue compared to the economy in 2015. The Lib-Dems have looked dead ever since they went into coalition, but I suppose there’s a small chance that they might now pick up some of the residual Tory/business pro-Europe vote. But I’m not sure how big that is. Does this shoot UKIP’s fox? Again, I’m not sure. It seems to me that many of UKIP’s voters don’t actually care that much about the EU, but are obsessively against all of Cameron’s attempts to “detoxify” the Tory Party, and particularly against measures like gay marriage. So this may not keep them.

Still, from a narrowly tactical point of view, it is probably the right move from Cameron. He can’t win on the economy, so pick a fight with Johnny Foreigner and hope that the tabloids see him through.



Pete 01.24.13 at 11:25 am

customs posts at Gretna Green. Nobody can see that as an attractive prospect (well, possibly Alec Salmond).)

No, that’s something he’s repeatedly said he doesn’t want and would be bad for Scotland.


Chris Bertram 01.24.13 at 11:27 am

Pete: my thought was not that Alex Salmond would want to do that himself, but that Alex Salmond would like the prospect of an English PM doing that.


Ciarán 01.24.13 at 11:46 am

With regard to the UK’s other region, the referendum also poses a challenge for parties Northern Ireland, which would like step out of the EU (whatever that comes to mean) alongside England and Wales. Of our permanent coalition, the DUP is on the face of it all for a referendum while Sinn Féin, which has taken a Eurosceptic position in the Republic of Ireland’s referendums, faces a huge challenge with the threat of having the UK step out while Ireland flounders within. This at a time when they are busily lobbying for a referendum on a united Ireland (one they would most likely lose). Ho hum.


Leo 01.24.13 at 12:13 pm

The next election is not going to be fought on the question of the EU and I doubt anybody in CCHQ or Downing Street believes that it will be. It will be fought on the economy and public services in most areas. Politically, this referendum promise is designed to stop two things: a) the Taliban tendency on the Conservative backbenches getting too raucous, and b) the migration of right-wing voters in Lab-Con and Lib-Con marginals to UKIP. But it is also about repatriating powers over working hours & conditions, employment protections, etc. to enable a future Tory government – whenever one may come along – to move Britain further in the direction the Tories want.

Much of the resentment against the EU in the UK seems to stem from two sources: i) the free movement of labour within the EU and the resultant migration to the UK that has brought from Eastern Europe; ii) perceived ECHR ‘interference’ with how we treat our prisoners, suspects and others; iii) perceived (and often phantom) ‘crazy’ EU regulations. None of these is remotely likely to be remedied by the negotiations the Conservatives are seeking. Indeed, if these things really get your goat, the only option is to leave the EU.

In a sentence, the Tories are exploiting anti-EU sentiment to facilitate greater exploitation of working people in the future. However, their room to politically manoeuvre is enlarged by the failure of the Labour party to develop a coherent set of views on the EU that can be clearly expressed and defended.


ajay 01.24.13 at 12:37 pm

Much of the resentment against the EU in the UK seems to stem from two sources: i) the free movement of labour within the EU and the resultant migration to the UK that has brought from Eastern Europe; ii) perceived ECHR ‘interference’ with how we treat our prisoners, suspects and others; iii) perceived (and often phantom) ‘crazy’ EU regulations. None of these is remotely likely to be remedied by the negotiations the Conservatives are seeking

Indeed, the ECHR has nothing to do with the European Union. The migration from eastern Europe wasn’t imposed by the EU either; the UK had the option of imposing migration limits on new member states in 2004 (as every other member state did) but rejected it (unlike every other member state except, IIRC, Ireland).
Ed Balls reckons this was a mistake:


ajay 01.24.13 at 12:38 pm

Leo: Also that’s three sources. Four if you include the European Commission’s almost fanatical devotion to the Pope. Wait, I’ll come in again.


Katherine 01.24.13 at 12:49 pm

There are few things that bug me more (on a small scale, I’m being a pedant level) than the consistent conflation of “Europe”, meaning the ECHR, and “Europe” meaning the EU. And I said small scale, and pedantic, but I’ve heard plenty of people do it who should know better, and are clearly trying to muddy the waters and take advantage of people’s ignorance.

For example, a Tory MP on Radio 4 recently complaining that “Europe” shouldn’t be telling “us” whether Christian’s should be able to wear crosses and/or discriminate on the basis of being (religious) bigots. These were ECHR decisions, but he was clearly trying to disingenuously create the impression that this was something to do with the EU. It’s maddening.


Chris Bertram 01.24.13 at 12:58 pm

ajay: … and I think Sweden also? Incidentally, isn’t it the case that if you are in the EU, you have to be signed up to the EHCR (though not vice versa). So the two are connected in the sense that the Tory crazies, if they could get the UK out of the EU, could then set their sights on the EHCR.


Phil 01.24.13 at 1:13 pm

There’s an interesting article in the last LRB by Helena Kennedy and Philippe Sands, recording their minority opinion on the commission set up to talk about the possibility of a UK Bill of Rights. They make the point that consultations showed very little public dissatisfaction with the ECHR and HRA, with quite a substantial groundswell of support for them – all the more so as the consultations got further from London and the political/media classes. I think, when push comes to shove, the number of people who would actually support the repeal of the HRA – let alone repudiation of the ECHR – is pretty similar to the number who seriously intend to vote UKIP at the next general election, i.e. 10% tops.

Makes you think, though. All this time I’ve been telling students that the death penalty’s never coming back, because it’s outlawed by the ECHR and while some ECHR rights are derogable that particular one isn’t, and we can’t just ignore the ECHR because of the HRA, and even if the HRA wasn’t there we’ve got treaty obligations, and we can’t ignore them because it would basically mean leaving the EU, end of argument. Take away that backstop – or get the idea of taking it away into the spectrum of political possibility, which is the position that Cameron’s just conceded – and all sorts of things start to seem possible, or less definitively impossible. Cheers, Dave.


paul hebden 01.24.13 at 1:27 pm

@Chris: I’m assuming by ECHR that you are referring to the European Court on Human Rights. I think lawyers refer to it as the ECrtHR to avoid confusion with the other (and preceding) ECHR, the European Convention on Human rights (ECHR). I’m sure you know this.
Anyway, I make the distinction not to be a pedant, but to highlight that (as I understand it) any state wishing to leave the ECrtHR has first to renounce the European Convention on Human Rights. I think the UK signed up to the convention back in the 60s.
In more general terms Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU (or whatever) can be seen as part of a concerted strategy of disengagement. The recent ‘Commission for a Bill of Rights’, found 80% public approval for the ECrtHR, the commission concluded in deadlock. This piece by Helena Kennedy and Phillipe Sands in the LRB, is worth reading in this context.


paul hebden 01.24.13 at 1:28 pm

Ah, I see @Phil beat me to it!


P O'Neill 01.24.13 at 1:33 pm

Does Cameron really think that the voters who he attracts with this proposal are excited (in a good way) about his vision of an alternative EU that concentrates on getting free trade deals with India?


James Wimberley 01.24.13 at 2:18 pm

Paul Hebden in #10: “I think the UK signed up to the convention back in the 60s.” The UK signed the day it was adopted (4 November 1950) and ratified on 8 April 1951. Not surprising, as the UK delegates (including the Tory lawyer and Nuremberg prosecutor David Maxwell Fyfe) wrote much of it, starting with the Universal Declaration and throwing out the rights that weren’t justiciable.


paul hebden 01.24.13 at 2:20 pm

Thanks @13


Rob 01.24.13 at 2:34 pm

“The first thing is that this is entirely driven by domestic politics and, indeed, largely by the internal politics of the Tory Party”

As opposed to what? It’s not unusual for government decisions to be driven by the internal politics of the governing party (coalition notwithstanding).

The Tories are opposed to the pooling of sovereignty inherent in the “ever closer” European Union. They now wish to establish whether or not the “ever closer” union will continue, in which case they want out, or if a looser union can be established without disproportionately disadvantaging those who use their opt-outs, in which case they’ll stay. In other words, they’re in favour of the EU insofar as the EU reflects their concerns, which is pretty much equally true of the Labour party.


ajay 01.24.13 at 2:39 pm

8, 9: good points. I suspect, though, that a lot of the anti-EU lot think that ECHR (both of ’em) _is_ in fact a product of the EU.


Hektor Bim 01.24.13 at 2:57 pm

Should we understand this to imply that Cameron himself has given up hope of improving the economy through austerity and wants to distract people? Is the ruling government destroying the British economy just because it refuses to do something else for ideological reasons?

I’m rather surprised that Labour hasn’t cleaned their clocks on the economy already and it is nice to see them refusing to go along with the referendum.


Steve LaBonne 01.24.13 at 3:39 pm

However, their room to politically manoeuvre is enlarged by the failure of the Labour party to develop a coherent set of views on the EU that can be clearly expressed and defended.

From across the Atlantic, they don’t appear to have developed a coherent set of views on pretty much anything.


mds 01.24.13 at 4:32 pm

Steve LaBonne @ 18

From across the Atlantic, they don’t appear to have developed a coherent set of views on pretty much anything.

Well, once the Tories got reorganized enough to come along and say, “We’d like our agenda of privatization of public goods, education ‘reform’, licking the financial sector’s bum, and kicking the working class in the teeth back, now,” what did New Labour have left?


engels 01.24.13 at 4:55 pm

ECtHR applies the ECHR over member states of the Council of Europe.
EU states ⊂ Council of Europe states (which include Russia, Turkey, etc).
EU is not itself a party to the ECHR but the European Court of Justice is strongly influenced by it.
ECHR isn’t a product of the EU but both ECHR and EU are products of similar ideas / circumstances (IMHO, IANAL…)


Manta 01.24.13 at 5:19 pm

A more interesting question is not whether and how the referendum would help the Tories, but whether and how it would help UK and/or the rest of Europe.


engels 01.24.13 at 5:22 pm

Will somebody translate ‘don’t let the door hit you on the way out’ into 23 languages?


Katherine 01.24.13 at 6:20 pm

ECHR isn’t a product of the EU but both ECHR and EU are products of similar ideas / circumstances (IMHO, IANAL…)

Hmm, sort of, but not really. The ECHR came alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, was written by, amongst others, a couple of UK conservatives. It was specifically about human rights, and about the relationship of individual and state. The UK, being one of the major architects, signed up on day one.

The EU – ESCS, EEC and EC as was – came about around the same time, yes, but its origins and intentions are quite different. It was, and still is to a large extent, about trade. It started out as a basic customs union, but the intention right from the start was to regulate states’ dealings with each other to avoid war. The relevant parties saw hitching themselves to each others’ wagons – making themselves truly and inextricably interdependent – as the best way to do this.

Over the years its scope has expanded considerably, to cover some of the same ground as the ECHR in, for example, areas such as employment discrimination. And yes, in order to get to be a member of the EU, you have to be a member of the ECHR, but still, the EU is now, and in prior incarnations, has always been a much more ambitious, and state based, project.


Katherine 01.24.13 at 6:24 pm

Also, the UK was most definitely not one of the founding nations, having snubbed the ECSC for EFTA, and then being seriously snubbed in return by De Gaulle. The mutual snubbage has turned out to be unpleasantly predictive of UK-EU relations since.


Chris Bertram 01.24.13 at 6:37 pm

The mutual snubbage has turned out to be unpleasantly predictive of UK-EU relations since.

Well sort of … it is easy to forget that it was the Conservatives who were the Euro-enthusiasts in the 1970s when the EEC was all to do with business and modernity and a whizzy new cosmopolitan age. That soured gradually under Thatcher until, with Jacques Delors and the social chapter, the Tories started to think of Europe as backdoor socialism and Labour started to warm to it because it was an obstacle to the Tories. AFAICS, the valence attached to the EU in British politics has never been for itself but always via (usually flawed) perceptions of how it aids capital or labour.


FRauncher 01.24.13 at 6:45 pm

@15 “a looser union” – “opt out” ? In the French view, at least, and mine, too, there’s nothing left for them to opt out of. As DeGaulle would have said, Good Riddance. Or more subtly, what Engels said @22


Katherine 01.24.13 at 6:45 pm

Fair enough – and thanks for the information. Having been born in 1976 my memory of 1970’s Euro-politics is, erm, fuzzy.


Lurker 01.24.13 at 6:47 pm

On the other hand: what does this mean for the Union? It is very unlikely that Britain would be able to renegotiate its membership in such a way that is now presented. The left-leaning groups in the European Parliament would likely veto any significant change to the founding treaties, even if the governments would get a consensus cobbled together. So, Britain can, at best, hope for a few formal gestures. In my opinion, even that would be too much, because it would open the way for other countries to engage in such selfishness.

So, a British exit from the EU is likely, if
a) Cameron sticks to his schtick and
b) doesn’t get kicked out of office.

For the rest of the EU, the British exit would be a net positive. The British mainly stand in the way of others and do not make any meaningful contributions to any aspect of the Union.


Alison P 01.24.13 at 6:56 pm

I do not think this is a strategic decision by Cameron. It is merely tactical. That is, he has not considered his own long term interests, still less those of his party or country. This is about dealing with immediate threats. It is effective in that. The long term problems he has created are clear but they must be of negligible significance to him. I doubt he thinks of himself as the Prime Minister of 2017


Cian 01.24.13 at 7:01 pm

Is the ruling government destroying the British economy just because it refuses to do something else for ideological reasons?

I think its less about destroying the economy, and more about recreating an economy which better suits them and theirs. Fortunately their reactionary radicalism is tempered by their quite extraordinary incompetence.


John Quiggin 01.24.13 at 7:45 pm

Is there a good analysis of the implications of a British exit? Among the questions that occur to me:

What would Scotland do?
Would it be a genuine exit, or some kind of peripheral status like that of Switzerland?
Likely effects on UK financial markets


Cian 01.24.13 at 8:44 pm

The best analysis I’ve seen, which I think was in the LRB, was that the UK would end up in the position of Switzerland and Norway. Forced to accept EU diktats if she wished to trade on favorable terms with her major trading partners, but without bargaining power.

One possible effect on the financial markets is that London would have financial rules forced upon them that up to now they’ve been able to resist.


mclaren 01.24.13 at 8:46 pm

I’d like to follow up on John Quiggin’s question, as I’m an American and not up on the intricacies of British politics. What implications would a British exit have for the Eurozone? Would it make the Euro more likely to break down as a common currency, or less likely? And perhaps most important, what would a British exit due to the struggling countries like Greece on the periphery of the Eurozone?

And does a British exit increase or decrease the likelihood of fixing the inability of individual countries to float their currencies so as to deal with chronic deficits? (Yes, I know that as long as the Euro remains a common currency it is nominally impossible for the individual member states to revalue their currencies, but as many economists have pointed out, this is such a devastating problem for the entire Eurozone that some way will eventually have to be found for individual member states to revalue their currencies relative to the Euro in effect in order to avoid the death spiral that countries like Greece and Spain and currently undergoing. And until some mechanism for allowing this is put in place, the Eurozone will remain unstable and the future of the Euro as a common currency will remain in doubt.)


rf 01.24.13 at 9:03 pm

“Some of the more market-oriented European politicians (Merkel maybe? the Swedes….”

Are Swede politicians more market oriented than the norm in Europe?


In the sky 01.24.13 at 9:20 pm

John Q – there’s already a question of whether the Democratic Republic of Scotland would automatically be in the EU.

Peripheral status ala Switzerland needs to be considered in the context of the guillotine clause.

As it stands, the Swiss pay into the EU budget and have to abide by most of their rules, but get little say in the creation of those rules. I doubt Tories will like that idea.


Cian 01.24.13 at 9:29 pm

What implications would a British exit have for the Eurozone?

Very little. Britain was never a member.


Soru 01.24.13 at 9:54 pm

Support for Scottish independence, as of last poll, is very low. But that would very likely change dramatically in the face of a UK that was doing something stupid like leaving the EU, and potentially the EHCR.

EWNI is no name for a country, so Wales leaves too, and the Troubles restart in NI, mainly stoked by whatever unionists rebrand themselves as. The pound is then a currency union between multiple politically hostile countries, one of which is having a low grade civil war. So Wales and Scotland join the euro, which leads to full on border and immigration controls, tariffs, etc. Net loss of GDP since the pre-recession peak hits 30%.

Or maybe things will be ok – who knows?


James 01.24.13 at 9:57 pm

Its unlikely that the Democratic Republic of Scotland would be allowed in the EU in the near term. Existing member nations, **Spain**, have contentious territories that have long angled for independence. Thus these member nations have put the ca-bosh on ‘revolt from current country / join EU’.


djr 01.24.13 at 9:58 pm


There’s no end of discussion about what the implications of a British exit would be (e.g. this from the BBC news) but anything further that that is really all guesswork – the only territory to have left the EU is Greenland, which isn’t exactly comparable, and as what would happen isn’t set out by any treaty but would have to be negotiated at the time, it really comes down to speculation about what the remaining EU states would choose to do.

Likewise, would it be a genuine exit seems to be equally open to debate. We’d still be 34 km from France, and nobody seems to have any idea of who would trade more with us out of the EU than in it, but being a major trading partner with the EU means accepting almost all of the EU rules without having any influence in writing them, like Switzerland or Norway.

It’s not clear that the EU is going to tolerate Switzerland having a status like Switzerland for much longer – they are under a lot of pressure regarding banking secrecy laws and so on – but even if there is a role for Switzerland, Switzerland seem to already have taken it.


James 01.24.13 at 10:40 pm

I think there is a strategic element to this.

What Cameron wants is powers back from the EU and he wants EU cooperation on that. If the rest of the EU did not cooperate then Cameron would threaten to leave. This is believed to be so bad for Britain that it would not be a credible threat.

By putting a referendum on the table Cameron forces other EU nations to deal with the UK, not on the basis of what relatively well briefed Westminster politicians believe/want but instead on what the UK electorate wants. The threat of an EU exit for the UK is now credible.

This has the added advantage in negotiations that it brings the offers/stance from the EU into greater alignment with Conservative electoral strategy. The most effective concessions other EU states might make would be the populist ones, the ones that would win a referendum would also be the concessions that would earn Cameron the most votes at the next election.

Certainly Cameron would look in a much better position in 2015 if he had won enough concessions to make the EU project palatable to marginal voters. If he then campaigns for continued membership and wins the Conservative party will still be fairly strong after that as well.


John Quiggin 01.24.13 at 10:45 pm

Interesting looking at the pro-side on the BBC news. They seem to imagine that Britain can pick the terms of its exit, keeping all the good stuff, while giving Europe the middle finger.

But, as djr@63 says, the EU gets to dictate the terms of any continued relationship. There’s no obvious reason, for example, why they need to allow Britain to retain its existing optouts from EU rules, let alone grant new ones.


leederick 01.24.13 at 10:58 pm

I just don’t think the “we don’t have a choice, they have us by the balls” line will fly as part of political debate. I don’t see any UK politician making that acceptance of powerlessness openly or trying to convince the public that it’s true.


Walt 01.24.13 at 11:12 pm

I think Alison P has it right — this is purely a tactical move. On those grounds I have to wonder, though, that if the Conservatives win the next election if Cameron would really carry through with the referendum. The push-back by business interests would be pretty strong.


Tim Wilkinson 01.25.13 at 1:58 am

if Cameron would really carry through with the referendum but he has to; he said he will.

if there is no appetite for a new Treaty for us all then of course Britain should be ready to address the changes we need in a negotiation with our European partners…when we have negotiated that new settlement, we will give the British people a referendum

What could be a clearer commitment than that? I suppose the promises about timetabling: if a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year. And we will complete this negotiation and hold this referendum within the first half of the next parliament. But then timetabling a deadline for completing negotiations might gradually and quite plausibly come to appear one of those mis-judged promises (well more of an aspiration) that it’s necessary to apologise for having made.

It’s whatever gets you through the next election. Once you’re in, do what you like for three years; something will come up. Actually a pretty rational view, especially since everyone has got pretty used to the idea that election promises aren’t to be taken literally.

This isn’t even an election promise, but a statement of intention to put something in the manifesto, which may or may not when the time comes strictly conform to some old speech that made a bit of a stir at the time but no-one could really quite believe; circumstances have changed since then, forward not back, the main thing is what is best for the British People, even if that means having the courage to accept you made a mistake, we have listened to the people (cite poll), etc.

The next Conservative Manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people [not: make a commitment to the British people] for a Conservative Government to negotiate a new settlement with our European partners in the next Parliament [not: complete the negotiations and have a referendum within the first half of it].


William Eric Uspal 01.25.13 at 2:10 am

“Thus these member nations have put the ca-bosh on ‘revolt from current country / join EU’.”

Still, the optics are different if a majority in England vote to leave the EU, and a majority in Scotland votes to stay: Scotland can plausibly argue that they were forced into secession; really, it’s England trying to drag them out; etc.


Colin 01.25.13 at 3:09 am

My prediction if Cameron wins the next election:

– UK gets some sort of negotiation with the rest of the EU. But the goverment’s negotiating position is hamstrung by internal problems in the Tory party, forcing the government to push for opt-outs that the rest of the EU would never accept. Talks drag on and the UK’s ‘unreasonable’ negotiating position expends much of the remaining goodwill the UK has in the rest of the EU.

– Eventually, some ‘agreement’ is reached just for the sake of having something to show. There are a few sensible reforms, but overall it’s a mess and everyone thinks the ‘other side’ got the better of the deal.

– UK votes No (to the new agreement) in the referendum and leaves the EU, effective 1 January 2018. The agreement is also rejected elsewhere in the EU and never comes into effect. Much annoyance all round on the continent that the British were offered such a generous deal and still just turned their noses up at it. Yes vote gets a majority in Scotland and in Wales, highlighting the divisions within the UK. (My prediction is No for Scottish independence in 2014, but the margin will not be too comfortable for the unionists and the SNP will remain popular.)

– In the withdrawal negotiations, the UK manages to stay in the EU customs union but the Tories are too divided to agree on anything more. A transitional visa scheme is brought in for EU migrants to the UK (with reciprocity for UK citizens) but no permanent right to free movement is retained.

– Labour wins a landslide victory in 2020, rejoins EFTA and restores most of the EU-agreed labour and social provisions that the Tories managed to scrap, but there is no hope of rejoining the EU. The UK basically ends up with the same law as it had as an EU member apart from on agriculture and fisheries, just with no formal say in it any more, and with its informal influence severely damaged by the whole withdrawal drama.


john b 01.25.13 at 4:38 am

For the rest of the EU, the British exit would be a net positive. The British mainly stand in the way of others and do not make any meaningful contributions to any aspect of the Union.

This is the same kind of spectacularly ignorant nonsense generally peddled by UKIP types, from the other side of the looking glass.

The UK has benefited massively from, and has massively benefited, the EU. The UK has been one of the biggest drivers and supporters of the EU’s moves towards free trade (internal and external), freedom of movement, and expansion.

What does “stand in the way of others” even mean in this context? “Sometimes blocks things that aren’t in its interests, just as France and Germany do?”


derrida derider 01.25.13 at 5:52 am

I think the assumption friend and foe alike are making about the next election – that the government’s miserable economic record is something Cameron will want a distraction from – is quite wrong.

Austerity has been a disaster, but the disaster will be in the past. Think Reagan’s “Morning in America” re-election campaign – the fact that he was the one responsible for the dark night preceding it just didn’t register. As Hobbes had it “felicity consisteth in prospering, not in having prospered” and by the election the punters won’t have prospered (the lost economic output will never be recovered) but they will be prospering. Euroscepticism will be a fringe issue only in Cameron’s campaign.


Z 01.25.13 at 7:29 am

It seems to me that Cameron’s move, which I analyze broadly as James @40, could backfire, as pointed out by Chris in the original post. I don’t see who are supposed to be the political allies of Cameron within the political class in the EU and the populations probably won’t care that much. Considering how symbolically apart UK has been since at least 20 years, my impression is that the spectrum of reaction from the general public is between “UK’s leaving? Oh, too bad” and engels @23. So all in all, I don’t expect Cameron to follow through.


Lacero 01.25.13 at 9:58 am

I had thought I saw this article mentioned on drooked timber, but I guess not.
The Economist’s take on it:

The most likely outcome would be that Britain would find itself as a scratchy outsider with somewhat limited access to the single market, almost no influence and few friends. And one certainty: that having once departed, it would be all but impossible to get back in again.


dax 01.25.13 at 12:03 pm

“What implications would a British exit have for the Eurozone?”

A lot IMHO. What makes the Eurozone weak is that there is a disconnect between political governance and the Euro. It is difficult now to have parliamentary/democratic oversight because the European parliament consists of non-Euro countries. Without the UK, the list of non-Euro countries dwindles, and the list of important non-Euro countries would go to zero. Sweden and similar countries will find itself in a very, very difficult position, with basically three choices: 1) leave the EU itself; 2) join the euro; 3) or (most probably) let the Eurozone remake the rules of the EU game so that the Eurozone can use the political apparatus of the EU. So, if the UK leaves the EU, it is positive for a longer existence of the euro. On the way, while the rules are changed (scenario 3), the opportunity might be taken to give Greece the boot.


dax 01.25.13 at 12:11 pm

A: “For the rest of the EU, the British exit would be a net positive. The British mainly stand in the way of others and do not make any meaningful contributions to any aspect of the Union.”

B: “This is the same kind of spectacularly ignorant nonsense.”

A’s second sentence may be disputable, but the first sentence I think clearly stands. People in the UK (I’ll use my brother, who lives there, as my datapoint of 1) just don’t understand how much many people in the rest of the EU would *prefer* that they leave. You really have this comical situation where the UK is saying, “We’ll leave unless we get what we want,” thinking the reply will be, “Oh no, what a horrible idea! We’ll do anything to keep you.” In fact many would just say, “Well, okay, fair enough, don’t hurt yourself on the way out.”


Cian 01.25.13 at 1:17 pm

#48 Austerity has been a disaster, but the disaster will be in the past. Think Reagan’s “Morning in America” re-election campaign – the fact that he was the one responsible for the dark night preceding it just didn’t register.

There’s not really a comparison. The recession in the US was caused by an unelected and (to most people) invisible technocrat. The one in the UK has been caused by the very visible (and disliked) chancellor. This has been so obviously self-inflicted (when even your plumber mentions this, clearly there’s some awareness beyond the chattering classes) that he can’t escape responsibility. There’s been huge criticism of it from economists, the opposition and even the bloody IMF. Osbourne has made promises that have not just been missed, but spectacularly so in some cases. And when he keeps just repeating that he’ll stick to the plan, no matter what, he comes across as a man totally out of his depth.

What the Tories have done, and this really is typical of their incompetent administration, is to own the recession/depression. By the election people will largely have forgotten Labour’s involvement in the crash, but will still remember it as a more optimistic and prosperous time.


engels 01.25.13 at 3:39 pm

Katherine, thanks, and you’re absolutely right that the purposes of the two are different: a trading pact with benefits is not the same thing as a bill of rights. I just meant there are comparisons in terms if where they came from but what i wrote perhaps came out too strongly.


Alison P 01.25.13 at 5:00 pm

The 2015 election plan was to engineer a frothy bubble of unsustainable tax cuts just before polling. The narrative would be ‘you lived through the pain, now enjoy the rewards’. It’s quite a good plan for the Tories. My guess is that Osborne has messed up so badly that they can’t get there.

The other strategy was boundary review which they privately said would put them into permanent govt. The backbenchers messed that up by antagonising the Lib Dems who would otherwise have co-operated in this project.

So Cameron’s options are reducing rapidly.


john b 01.26.13 at 2:32 am

Dax: that’s exactly why I compared the non-UK Europeans who hold such views with the Brits who support UKIP. They may fervently believe that the EU would be better off without the UK or vice versa, but in both cases, their views are based solely on ignorance and nationalist bigotry.

Any review of the evidence (in terms of the benefits of trade, free movement of people, budget contributions to low-income regions, common regulations, and so on) shows that the UK’s presence in the EU is beneficial – both to people in the UK and to people in other EU states.


John David Galt 01.26.13 at 2:33 am

The EU has long since firmly announced that if any member country breaks up, the seceding part(s) will have to reapply for EU membership (if they still want it). This is because many member nations (Spain, France, Belgium, Italy) have secession movements, but in every case those countries’ MEPs are on the opposing side.

Thus an independent Scotland within the EU doesn’t appear to be an option. If Scotland votes for independence they are voting to leave the EU. This may be the reason it will pass! The Scots don’t especially want to forgo the net tax subsidy they now get from England, but it may be worth it if they can cut themselves loose from the Greeks, Italians, Irish, and Spanish before those countries drag down the economies of every country that stays in the lifeboat with them.

Then again — one has to wonder how much anything in the EU’s various treaties can be expected to matter any more. Maastricht (the treaty that set up the Euro) promised that no member would be asked to bail out another; we know what’s happening there. On the other hand, somebody might still want to use the “ever closer Union” pledge in the Treaty of Rome to forbid any country leaving.

But I predict that we’re within a year of the next World War, which will mean all these things cease to matter, and the decisions that last will be made after the peace.


James 01.27.13 at 3:36 am

This article suggests that the treaty actually costs Britain $17 billion out $6.2 billion in, loss of fishing, higher food prices, no protection for the services industry, and now a threat to the profits from London Banking. Conservative news source:


john b 01.27.13 at 1:38 pm

I enjoyed the way that the final sentence of JD Galt’s comment saved me from having to think about whether the prior sentences made any sense.


Ronan D 01.28.13 at 2:14 am

Consider me somewhat naive about how Britain begins this process. Clearly there’s confusion about outcome they desire, but how do the British set about getting the ball rolling? When does it begin? He’s announced his intention so he must intend to begin in this administration right? How does collective cabinet responsibility work regarding choosing negotiators, tasking them etc given their coalition partners’ obvious discomfort? I really don’t understand the Liberal Democrats role here. Did they forswear any input in UK dealings with Europe in the coalition agreement? Effectively, does this policy have parliamentary assent if the issue gets pushed before the next election.

In other words is the EU really being asked to enter negotiations with the Conservative party ahead of the next election rather than the current UK government?

Or can this all be thoroughly ignored by the rest of us in Europe until after the next election?

I fail to see how the UK government as constituted can negotiate a deal to be presented by the next government.

Never mind German election timetables, or what’s on the EZ’s agenda, the timing of this whole thing is bizarre and unwelcome. I feel genuinely sorry for British civil servants working for either the UK or within EU institutions. A 5 year pregnancy…


ajay 01.28.13 at 11:59 am

Yes to 59, but it’s a shame he didn’t put it at the top to save me from having to read it.


pobbmaster 01.29.13 at 10:58 am

lets hope for good….


engels 01.30.13 at 1:41 am

Someone actually reads the comments from top to bottom? What next – someone who reads the post before they comment?

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