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EU Referendum: an optimistic view

2015-11-26 08:58:34

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As the year begins to drain away without anything tangible in terms of Mr Cameron's supposed renegotiations, we get Catherine Bearder the last and only Liberal Democrat MEP, doubting whether the UK would be allowed the Norway option if it did leave the EU. "The deal will be very difficult, because they [other member states] don't want any other country to join us", she says.

She likens the scenario to someone leaving the family home after a divorce, remarking that, "You don't give them the front-door key and tell them to use the sitting room any time they like".

Insofar as this means anything, it is a neat reminder of the "better deal fallacy". The EU has too much at stake to give us an easy ride, so it will deliver as much as it needs to, and no more. However, there is little dispute that stresses are building up within the Community and, according to Nicolai von Ondarza of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, there is an urgent need for the EU to legitimise its current situation.

Von Ondarza argues that the numerous successes of eurosceptics in the European elections, and above all the subsequent national elections, have already impaired the functioning of the Union. Without the consent of the people, it is condemned to failure in the long term.

Nothing immediate can happen but the medium-term political perspective will be dominated by three looming events: German Bundestag elections and French presidential elections in 2017, and the British referendum in 2016 or 2017.

Until then, von Ondarza concedes that there is not a great deal more that can be done. That which can be done will only pave the way for tackling a treaty revision after 2017.

Germany can and should play a key role in this process. Not only does Berlin occupy at least a leading position in the Eurozone, London also orientates its negotiating strategy largely on Germany.

If Berlin wishes to advance the Union's development it needs to use these levers, above all to achieve the necessary political agreements in the short and medium term. And in the longer perspective the German government must declare its willingness to tackle the challenge of a regular treaty amendment, including a Convention.

Doubtless, the role of France will also be crucial but, in 28-nation Union, any single member can end up blocking change. A referendum in any one of a number of countries could delay or even block those medium-term plans.

But there is obviously something in the wind, as we are also getting ruminations from Nick Witney former chief executive of the European Defence Agency.

He warns that Britain is pushing its luck and the patience of the "colleagues" is wearing dangerously thin. While a properly committed and engaged UK would be widely welcomed, the departure of the obstructive and unhelpful UK of recent years would, in and of itself, elicit few tears.

Any efforts partners are still ready to make to help Cameron in his "renegotiation" will be made less by warmth towards the British than fear of Brexit's impact on the cohesion, the balance, and even the sustainability of the remainder of the EU. Thus, we have the possibility of a situation where the "colleagues" might walk away and leave Mr Cameron to his fate, letting him fight the EU referendum unaided.

This might especially be the case if the Union is unable to agree to a new treaty announcement before Britain goes to the polls, in which case the Prime Minister will be going to the people with empty hands. And having promised "full-on" treaty revision, not even to have the promise of a future treaty would leave him in a very weak position.

In that event, if the "leave" campaign could come up with an attractive alternative to the EU, and offer credible assurances that an orderly departure is feasible, then we could be in with a serious chance of winning the referendum.

This must be obvious to the Prime Minister, who must be aware that he needs the promise of a treaty in order to win. And since there can be no treaty announcement until the Spring of 2017, that more or less settles the date of the poll.

Therefore, as far as the current state of play goes, we have nearly two years to convince the British public that there is a credible alternative to the EU. And if we get it right, 2017 could actually see us on our way out.