Richard North, 20/12/2012  

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Timothy Garton Ash, that unreformed europhile, is sounding off in the loss-making Guardian, telling us that David Cameron should promise us a straight "in-out" referendum in his speech in January. He further asserts that, "if Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have the guts and gumption, they will beat Cameron to it and steal his thunder – not to mention, some of UKIP's lightning".

Worryingly, in view of the difficulty in assembling independent responses, Garton Ash sets great store by the "exhaustive review" of the "balance of competences" between the UK and the EU being conducted across Whitehall. This, he believes, could be a starting point for the conversation across the Channel. Presumably, on the basis of this review, there would be "a settled national position", allowing "we, the people" to decide whether we want to be in or out.

Like others, though, Garton Ash does not believe that we should have a referendum until there is an answer to the essential prior question: "In or out of what?" We need to know the shape of the post-crisis EU: you cannot have a proper "renegotiation" of Britain's place in, or a semi-detached relation with, an unknown unknown.

This, however, is not kicking the problem into the long grass, in the hope that "tomorrow never comes". Tomorrow will come, says Garton Ash, some time between 2015 and 2020. Forty plus years on, we will again have the chance to conduct a serious debate about Britain's place in Europe and the world – not the tabloidised phoney war we have experienced over the last 20 years.

It will be the job of this government and of the next, whatever its political complexion, to prepare the ground as well as possible with our European partners so as to secure the best possible deal for Britain. And, as something not to be brushed under the carpet, Garton Ash thinks that the "pro-Europeans" could win an "in-out" referendum.

He does not believe the brains of the British people have been so addled by the Sun and Daily Mail that they will, confronted with the facts about what it is really like to be Norway (without the oil) or Switzerland, decide that exit – Brexit or Brixit – is the best option for this country.

If they do, the man considers that this would be an historic mistake but, he says, the people will have spoken. He believes in the European project, but – he says – he believes even more in democracy. Thus, his view about the referendum is: "Bring it on and may the best arguments win".

In some ways, that final statement is fair enough, although we are alert to the near-certainty that the referendum will be rigged, and that the greater resources of the "inners" will swamp the "out" campaign. Thus, any referendum campaign is unlikely to be a model of a democratic process.

Thus, enthusiasm for a referendum does need to be tempered by the possibility that we could lose it. But on a more positive note, as the europhile case emerges, we begin to see how fragile it is.

Amongst other things, Garton Ash relies heavily on the Norway option being unattractive. We know different, but we need to make our arguments clear. And although a referendum may be (and most certainly is) years away, we have no time to waste.


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