What would happen if a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union went ahead and a majority voted to leave? No-one knows for sure, although one outcome that can be ruled out is Britain’s immediate exit from the club.
The UK’s economic and legal integration with its European partners is too intimate to allow a prompt severance of ties. Instead, the long process of negotiated disentanglement – and, presumably, some selective commercial re-entanglement – would begin.
The prospect of that post-referendum discussion is now being raised by an influential Tory backbencher and supporter of David Cameron’s renegotiation policy as reason to be relaxed about an “out” vote. “If Britain votes to leave the EU, we haven’t left: we start negotiations,” says Andrea Leadsom, co-chair of the Fresh Start group of Conservative MPs who campaign for a radical reconfiguration of Britain’s relations with Brussels. “That set of negotiations to leave may even be more fruitful than the negotiations before the referendum.”
Leadsom’s intervention is significant in a number of ways. Fresh Start are tacitly licensed by Downing Street to meet senior continental politicians and diplomats, preparing the case for renegotiated membership and exploring what is viable. David Cameron’s ambition for a new deal to be ratified in a referendum is exclusive to the Tory side of the coalition, meaning it is not official government policy so not something Foreign Office officials can work towards. But Cameron’s target date for the plebiscite is 2017. If renegotiation cannot begin in earnest until a putative election victory in 2015, there won’t be much time to get a deal. Hence No10 backing for Conservative MPs to engage in path-finding diplomacy. Leadsom told Bloomberg last year that she was “warmly encouraged” in her work.
It is revealing, then, that she now talks about the referendum and a possible “no” vote as just a staging post on the road to a transformed relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe. She makes a comparison with the vote on Scottish independence later this year, in which it is widely accepted that the pro-union side will not seriously negotiate divorce terms before the votes are counted. “What we fail to consider is what ‘out’ really means,” says Leadsom. “A vote in the Scotland referendum to leave doesn’t mean Scotland has left. There’s a whole further negotiation.”
Leadsom is also a member of the Downing Street policy board – a position that, in No10’s view, carries line-toeing responsibility broadly equivalent to the message-discipline expected of ministers. Leadsom makes it clear that her comments do not necessarily conflict with the Prime Minister’s stated goal of securing an “in” vote. “These are the questions that need to be asked,” she adds. “There’s a strong case for staying in a profoundly reformed EU, because of the potential of a globally competitive trade bloc.”
Yet the implication is also clear that an “out” vote need not be disastrous – and it is a central contention of the pro-EU side of the debate that it would be a catastrophe. Cameron has never declared himself quite that relaxed about Britain potentially rejecting EU membership. He shields himself with confidence that the deal he can eventually strike will obviate that risk. But in Tory circles the “no fear” position is an important badge of authentic scepticism, signalling potential readiness to vote to leave the EU if the terms on offer are not sufficiently attractive.
Establishing what those terms might be is central to the work done by Fresh Start. Leadsom also has a piece on the Mail Online today in which she concedes that many other European politician are wary of Tory scepticism, while insisting that common ground can be found. (Fresh Start is co-hosting a conference on EU reform at which George Osborne is due to speak tomorrow.) Last November Fresh Start published a Mandate for Reform, setting out a blueprint for future relations with Brussels. It posits significant extensions of national vetoes and withdrawal from areas of collaboration in social and criminal justice that are considered by most EU governments to be integral to the project and not subject to negotiation. The document builds on the Manifesto for Change that that was published days before Cameron first made his referendum pledge and which contained a supportive introduction by William Hague.
Pro-Europeans very much doubt that anything like the scale of change envisaged by Fresh Start can be agreed soon – certainly not between a general election in 2015 and a referendum in 2017. Their view is that not enough national governments are interested in rule revisions that would necessarily involve re-opening established treaties or drafting a new treaty, which in turn would provoke competing demands for concessions and possibly trigger referendums in countries whose constitutions demand it. (For a sober pro-EU account of how little Cameron can reasonably expect to achieve it is worth reading this piece by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, from last December.)
The Tory sceptics see that kind of language as defeatism. The whole point of the referendum, they argue, is to force Britain’s European counterparts to stare “Brexit” in the face, realise the UK’s departure is not in their interests and start talking in earnest about radical reform.
Diplomats and officials in Brussels warn that such a strategy is counterproductive and risks testing to breaking point tolerance of British exceptionalism. Senior Commission officials mutter darkly about blackmail, but Conservative backbenchers don’t worry too much about hurting the feeling of Commissioners, seeing them mostly as corrupt agents of an unacceptable EU status quo. There is now palpable impatience on the Conservative benches for signals that Cameron has drastic upheaval in mind. 95 Tory MPs have signed a letter calling for a parliamentary right of veto over European laws so sweeping as to amount, in essence, to a repudiation of membership of the union in anything like its current form.
This gambit reinforces the concerns of Conservative moderates that hardliners are using the vagueness of Cameron’s current renegotiation prospectus as a ratchet to move the party into an ever more sceptical position. (This blog by the BBC’s James Landale has an instructive taxonomy of signatories to the letter.)
Where the balance of opinion in the Conservative party really lies is hard to guage. A minority is explicitly signed up to the view that the UK is “better off out” under any circumstances. There is also a much smaller cadre of eager pro-European opinion in the parliamentary party. That leaves the bulk of MPs, a couple of hundred by most Westminster reckoning, in the middle. They take the view that Britain’s relations with Brussels as currently configured are unpalatable to most voters - and indefensible in local Tory associations - but not entirely beyond repair. (There is an interesting attempt by the think tank Civitas to plot Tory MPs on a spectrum of scepticism here)
Cameron’s referendum pledge was thus temporarily effective as a device for holding the Tories together but it left two vital questions unanswered - gaps that the Fresh Start project set out to fill. The first was whether other European capitals would be supportive enough of the Tory position for renegotiation to look like a credible foreign policy rather than a short-term device for party management. The second is what scale of reform might enable Conservative MPs to feel able – having consulted their consciences and their constituents – to advocate a “Yes to EU” position. After all, the Prime Minister’s stated ambition is still to get to a place where most Tories think Britain is “better off in.” That looks like an increasingly tall order if even Fresh Starters, the official outriders for Cameron’s renegotiation, suggest the most fruitful talks might turn out to be the ones that would follow an “out” vote in 2017.