EU Referendum

EU Referendum: trapped by its history


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As quickly as it emerged, the growing meme of a "snap referendum" has evaporated, killed by Monday's amendment which required the Government to give four months notice for any changes to the "purdah" regulations.

The real point, though, is that there was never any chance of a snap referendum, nor even an early referendum – for both legal and political reasons.

The essence of the legal case is that that Electoral Commission's recommendation - that there should be nine months between the passing into law of the Referendum Act (and associated regulations) and the poll – has the effect of law.

This is by virtue of arcane provisions of judicial review, which make a Ministerial decision on the date subject to review, and where the Electoral Commission's advice is a material consideration which must be taken into account when the date is chosen.

However, the political framework is a far more powerful guide to the referendum timing, and one that currently points to the latter quarter of 2017. According to the "snap referendum" pundits, Mr Cameron was set to hold a referendum one month after finalising his EU "renegotiations", thus catching us all unaware.

Here, it is difficult to put a finger on the exact time but at some point within the last few months, the door snapped shut on the Prime Minister's chances of renegotiation – so much so that even the House of Lords Select Committee earlier this summer noticed something was amiss.

We were picking up the vibes by the end of June and right up to the end of August, the signs have been consistently pointing towards a new EU treaty. The "colleagues" are working on a programme set to commence in late 2017.

With Mr Cameron's renegotiation options closed down, the only "play" we can see available to him is to pick up the lifeline of "associate membership" embodied in the proposed treaty. He will have to make the best of it that he can, presenting it to the British public as something he dreamed up and has been able to drag out of an "unwilling" Brussels.

As far as we can divine, that "play" will only come available when the programme for a new treaty is announced, which puts the referendum firmly towards the end of 2017. If Mr Cameron is to run that "play", the referendum cannot be earlier.

Even then, the timetable is by no means firm. There are many uncertainties and concerns about a new treaty, most recently in Handelsblatt which has the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW) warning about going too far with changes, such as the creation of a eurozone finance minister and a separate budget.

Despite this, the Centre supports the idea of permitting the withdrawal of a country from the monetary union "as a last resort". And that is a structural change which would require a new treaty.

Possibly by coincidence, we are seeing Ben Wright in the Telegraph also suggesting that some current members should be allowed to leave the eurozone, whittling down the "European project" to its core members. Once again, for that to happen, there would have to be a new treaty. 

Wright also thinks that a eurozone financial ministry is a non-starter, as well as appearing to dismiss a new treaty, pointing out that new European treaties would have to be agreed by not just the eurozone members but the whole European Union. Then, he writes, "the politicians would have to sell the concept to their increasingly eurosceptical electorates".

For sure, a new treaty presents a huge risk for the "colleagues". The French, in particular, are nervous about whether a referendum will bring the project down. But for the outer fringe with their "eurosceptical electorates", these can be squared by the offer of associate membership.

The core members will be reconciled by the framing of the new treaty. It will be presented to the electorates of the Member States as improving the "democracy" of the eurozone - bringing democratic control to a system that is already largely in place.

This is precisely what Otmar Issing was pointing out recently, "warning" that it would be "dangerous" to transfer control over tax and spending to the EU federal level before full political union has been established first on democratic foundations. The transfer is happening. The "democracy" will follow.

But Issing takes the view that such a quantum leap is unthinkable in the current political atmosphere, with the chances of political union "close to zero". That notwithstanding, the attempt is to be made. The Five Presidents Report and the Bertelsmann Fundamental Law have set in train an unstoppable process. The "colleagues" are going to go ahead with their treaty because they must. They have run out of options.

How they manage the announcement and attendant publicity will be a joy to behold, but we might get some clues from Juncker's "State of the Union" address today. Then, there is a long series of events before we see a treaty take shape.

First, there will be the convention, held in the European Parliament. We expect this to start in the spring of 2018, with plenty of publicity opportunities to frame the treaty as a democracy enhancement. Two years of non-stop propaganda will bring us to the intergovernmental conference, and it will be another year before there is a definitive text to look at – bringing us well into 2021.

By then, the political landscape could be very different to what it is now, so it would be rash to make predictions as to what might or might not happen. What we can say, though, is that great events are on the horizon.

And behind them all is a sense of inevitability. If nothing else, the European Union is trapped by its history, driven by great movements that cannot be denied. Things will happen because they must. We are mere observers and will have to wait to see where they lead.