Talking Politics

No real eurosceptic can support Cameron’s referendum

Prime ministers only call referendums when they are fairly certain they will win, so it was ironic that Tory eurosceptics met David Cameron's promise of an EU referendum with such jubilation. Perhaps the subdued demands of an MP's lifestyle have dulled their intellectual abilities.  Or maybe they simply waited so long to hear the phrase 'in-or-out' that its mere expression made them take leave of their senses. Or, just possibly, they were never really eurosceptics at all, just right-wing Little Englanders with a penchant for Victorian-era working conditions.

Whatever the cause, they are now celebrating a course of action which will kill off Britain's chances of leaving the EU for a generation. Cameron is the most eurosceptic prime minister in British history, but his framework for a referendum is specifically designed to keep Britain in the EU – albeit without any of its progressive ideals.

Historically and internationally, the voting public tends to embrace the status quo the closer they get to a referendum. This is true irrespective of the issue, but you can see it just as acutely in the case of the EU. Last May, 51% of YouGov respondents said they would vote to leave the EU, while just 28% wanted to stay in. Just after the new year, when the prospect of a referendum looked much more certain, the gap narrowed to 15%. Three weeks ago it was six per cent. Two weeks ago the tables turned and those wanting to stay in led by a six-point margin. Regardless of the circumstance, it would always be difficult for eurosceptics to win an in-or-out referendum on Europe.

But ask voters how they would vote after negotiations have taken place to repatriate powers and the odds tilt even more heavily in favour of those wanting to remain in the EU. When asked last summer, 42% told YouGov they would stay in the EU in these circumstances, while 34% said they would vote to leave. But earlier this month the result was even more convincing: 50% would vote to stay in and 25% would vote to get out - a margin or two to one. And that's years before the final three-week stretch of a referendum campaign, when the 'don't know' category typically starts to support the status quo under the influence of negative campaigning.

In 1975, when Harold Wilson offered Britain a vote on Europe, he also chose to do it after presenting the nation with an (almost entirely fictional) narrative about improved relations. He secured a similar margin of victory. Voters are naturally cautious, sticking with the status quo where possible. If Cameron assures them he has regained powers for Britain they will opt to stay in. And no matter how badly he performs in Brussels, his fellow leaders will probably give him just enough to sell back at home, while protecting their cherished non-flexible membership. Cameron only needs one power back to promote the idea that Europe is now a two-way street.

Politicians read polls closer than anyone. They can see the writing on the wall. So why would Tory eurosceptics be so euphoric? Because most of them don't really favour leaving the EU. They are not, as they say, proper 'outies'. Personally, I would prefer to borrow Margaret Thatcher's term 'wets' for those content with reformed membership, not least because it would upset the Tory 2010 intake to have it directed at them.
Their complaints are about the working time directive, environmental regulations and prisoner voting rights. You do not hear them mention the effective ban on Keynsian economics in the fiscal compact, or the mandatory privatisation of rail services across the continent. Theirs is a selective euroscepticism.

The same is true for the eurosceptic left, which is admittedly tiny but has grown substantially larger over the last four years. Listen to any of its members speak and you will invariably hear them mention the railways, the fiscal compact or perhaps the power the European Central Bank (ECB) wields over national governments.

They are right to be upset. The 2009 EU parliament meeting which passed EU rail directives 91/440/EEC, 95/18/EC and 2001/14/EC was a travesty of justice. In a move which typifies the EU's use of insidious tediousness as a weapon to evade public scrutiny, it handed over Europe's publicly-owned railways to private capital with passengers and rail workers none the wiser.

This was not wrong because it supported privatisation, but because it implemented a major change to a continent's infrastructure with none of the debate and accountability which democratic states have a right to expect. The passing of the working time directive was just as wrong, even though it happens to be sensible and humane, because it is imposed on nation states rather than constructed by them.

Most eurosceptics on the left and right do not oppose the EU because it is an affront to democracy, but because they don't like its policies. Cameron is just like them. He wants to stay in the EU, but get rid of human rights restrictions and working regulations. It is the worst possible outcome: still in the EU, but shorn of all that makes it tolerable.

It is a travesty for Tory backbenchers and their allies in the press to back Cameron. Their eurosceptic principles have all the substance of a dry leaf. As soon as they were subject to even the most cursory pressure they fell to dust. Their war is not with the EU, but with workers' rights and the inability of business people to do precisely what they want whenever they want to do it.

The relationship between principled eurosceptics and Tory backbenchers was never easy. Most so-called eurosceptics on the government benches embrace Cameron's desperate poetry about our 'island mentality'. Scratch below the surface of some of them and you find out-and-out xenophobes – the sort of people who raise an eyebrow at Nick Clegg's wife, as if having a foreign spouse is a third of the way to treason.

Real Eurosceptics hate the EU not because they dislike Europe, but because they love it. They want the best for a remarkable continent, not the bureaucratic horror this failed experiment in governance has brought. They recognise that the arrogance and secrecy of the EU are an innate side-effect of the centralisation of power, that policy should be devolved down from national parliaments to local councils, not up to a continental level. They recognise what political thinkers have foreseen for hundreds of years: that centralisation will always create a managerial class disconnected from the concerns of those they are meant to govern.

It is fitting that Greece, where democracy was invented, and Britain, where it was developed, are the two countries most likely to drop out the EU. Europe deserves better than arrogant federalists on one hand, and ignorant nationalists on the other. But with Cameron's sleight of hand, only the worst and least committed of the EU's critics have been given a voice.

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