EU Referendum

EU Referendum: the wrong kind of leaves


Booker is in full flow this weekend with his an evaluation of the state of play on the referendum.

A question he asked just before Christmas, he writes, is even more relevant today: "Has any major political story of our time ever been more myopically discussed than that of our promised referendum on whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU?"

In the foreground we still see the carefully staged theatre, which has David Cameron appear to trudge forlornly round the capitals of Europe seeking support for his wish to negotiate a "new relationship" for Britain in a "reformed EU".

This was all supposedly so that he could arrive next month at some kind of "a deal" – something that was never going to happen. Belatedly, even the Spectator and the Sunday Telegraph are beginning to recognise.

Not all the hacks have caught up with this reality, though, and some are still claiming that we could be seeing a referendum as early as this summer.

Meanwhile, with the emergence of Peter Bone's "Grassroots Out" (GO), ever more groups are emerging, some of which are jockeying for lead designation in the "leave" campaign.

As it stands, though, none have so far formally adopted A practical plan as to how we might actually extricate ourselves from the EU in a sensible way – let alone offer any positive vision of how Britain could flourish outside it.

Booker suggests that Mr Cameron will not emerge with much to show for his little ragbag of demands, although even these, he admits, would require a new treaty. And, as the Electoral Commission explains, the necessary procedures for a referendum rule out any chance of having one a day earlier than his promised date of 2017.

Looming over all this in the background, however, is that far more important element in the picture, hardly ever referred to on this side of the Channel: the fact that our EU colleagues are now actively planning a major new treaty of their own, which makes anything so far on offer look like an insignificant sideshow.

Hidden in plain sight, as in various documents published in Europe including last September's "State of the Union Address" by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, is the plan for a radical restructuring of the EU into two classes of member.

The 19 eurozone countries will move on to much closer political and economic union; while Britain and the rest become mere "associate members" (possibly also including countries outside the EU, such as Norway and Switzerland).

As Juncker explained, none of this is to be formally revealed until 2017, when the Commission issues a White Paper to trigger the laborious procedures now required for any new treaty. And these might not be concluded until 2025.

All of which completely transforms the game play. Mr Cameron can keep his original promise to hold a referendum in 2017, but only to ask the British people for permission to remain in the EU until the terms of the new treaty are clear. We will then have to hold a second referendum on whether we accept these terms.

His successor will thus be able to lead a "yes" campaign for Britain to remain in the EU as just an "associate member" (the fabulous "British model"), and Mr Cameron will have got pretty well all he promised.

Under this magical scenario, Britain will enjoy the sunlit uplands of a wholly "new relationship" with a "reformed EU", even though this meant we were still firmly part of it, subject to most of its laws – and of course without any of the advantages we might have got by regaining our status as an independent country.

Until our "Leave" campaigners wake up to this, Booker writes, they are doomed to remain as no more than "the wrong kind of 'Leaves' on the line" – and we shall continue sleepwalking through this dismal little non-debate in which no one bothers to explain what is really going on.

However, Booker recognises that one such "leave" one may belatedly be getting its act together on and exit plan. That is, of which we expect to see much more later. Mr Cameron's game may already be cast in stone. But for some of us the leavers, the play is only just beginning.