Richard North, 03/07/2012  

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With referendum fever rampant, the Independent is already up and running with arguments for staying in the EU, offered by Ben Chu. The points made are all very predictable, and have been made before to the point of tedium. We can counter them with ease.

However, this is not the ground on which the battle will be fought. As the situation develops, the chances are that we will have to face not one but two referendums. Addressing the scenario posed in my earlier piece, we face the prospect of a treaty referendum some time in 2015, close to or coinciding with the general election – should the EU survive that long.

The chances are that this will not be an in/out referendum, but one in which asks whether we approve a new treaty which gives considerably more power to the EU. Like as not, the UK will have negotiated multiple opt-outs, and the pressure will be on to approve the treaty on the basis that refusal would crash the euro.

However, in that scenario, an affirmative would put the UK in the second tier of a two-tier EU which had been transformed into a United States of Europe, centred around remaining eurozone countries. Thus, there must be linkage between a "yes" vote to the treaty and an in/out poll, the former conditional on being given the latter.

Putting clothes on this, what we might see is Cameron confronting us with a treaty referendum before the general election, with him campaigning for a "yes" vote on the promise of an in/out referendum after the election.

This, in effect, was what Cameron was saying in the Commons yesterday. The status quo in Europe was "unacceptable", he said, adding: "I believe we should show strategic and tactical patience in this".

What he wanted to see was "a fresh settlement that we seek fresh consent for". Then came the crux of the matter: "The right time to determine questions about referendums and the rest of it is after we have that fresh settlement. That is what we should do".

This scenario would pus Labour and the Lib-Dems on the spot, and possibly give the Conservatives the breakthrough differentiation that they needed to win. It would also blow UKIP out of the water.

Then, and only then, would come the job of fighting the real referendum but, in the new environment, that would be eminently winnable – providing the "outers" get their act together, and start thinking through their campaign now.

In the first instance, I would propose we lose the titles eurosceptic and eurorealist – and anything similar. I suggest we go for "outer", as opposed to "inner", making the battle lines clear.

That is where Philip Johnston tries to go this morning, and he is partially right. There's only one question, he says, "Are we in or out? ". But then he adds, "Any effort to renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership of the EU is just a smokescreen".

There, I differ slightly, and this assertion cannot be allowed to take hold as it stands. De facto and de jure, withdrawal involves negotiation, and the proposed settlement between the EU and UK must define the battleground. Most if not all the points raised by Ben Chu can be resolved in exit negotiations, under Article 50. We need to get past the idea that leaving is "sudden death".

However, Johnston is completely right about one thing. Any attempt to sell renegotiation before we leave would be a fraud. We need to get rid of the fudge. Forget renegotiation. The issue to decide is indeed in or out. Then, and only then, do we start talking with the "colleagues".


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