The sceptics are back, but what does it mean for us?

Sat, Jul 7, 2012, 01:00

DAVID CAMERON, who saw at first hand how the Conservatives tore John Major’s government apart in the early 1990s over the Maastricht treaty, had hoped desperately to rule without having to “bang on”, as he once put it, about the European Union. It has not worked out that way.

Cameron has been brought ever closer to agreeing to hold a referendum on EU membership after the 2015 general election, even if the question to be asked remains unformed.

From the outside, it might seem like a case of deja vu, that the 2012 debate is led by the same sort of wild-haired obsessives who were dubbed a dangerous amusement 20 years ago. But times have changed. Eurosceptics have become more sophisticated operators, and, in light of the euro crisis, arguments once derided now give pause for thought.

A British departure from the EU, while still “extremely unlikely”, is no longer the unthinkable suggestion it once was. But crises could create their own impetus in the years ahead. For the Republic, the UK’s coming series of actions are crucial, yet few on either side are sure of the full consequences, bar a consensus that it is a source of instability the Republic could do without.

Cameron does not want to quit the EU – a view still shared by most of the Conservative Party’s grassroots, however reluctantly – but he wants to renegotiate membership, bringing back to Westminster powers now pooled in Brussels. It won’t be easy.

Conservative MPs in 2012 have, if anything, a greater antipathy towards the EU than their predecessors; partly because those in marginal seats are terrified about losing votes to the UK Independence Party, the anti-EU group led by Nigel Farage.

Equally, Cameron’s temporary halo – conferred by his backbenchers after he vetoed last December’s EU fiscal treaty talks – has faded. Most importantly, it has convinced them vetoes, or the threat of vetoes, are now worthless because the rest will just go ahead on their own.

Chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne favours a referendum pledge for the 2015 election – the only question to be decided, according to some, is the sequence of events: a referendum to seek a mandate, or one on the outcome of a negotiation already held. The former has greater political strategy behind it, since EU countries frustrated with London, such as Germany, may be willing to pay some price to keep the UK onboard.

The danger in London is of a bidding war. Labour, which has always had a Eurosceptic wing, albeit a quieter one, is toying with offering its own post-2015 referendum pledge – even if party leader Ed Miliband is not yet convinced. Party politics is the dominant motivation, a point illustrated by the unity between traditionally jaundiced Labour MPs and the likes of Peter Mandelson, whose principal aim is to cause havoc within the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, there is a possibility rumours that Labour were on the point of offering a pledge could provoke unilateral action by the Conservatives, even if Cameron had reached the opinion by then that he needed to hedge his bets.

So far, Cameron has behaved tactically, rather than strategically. His December veto destroyed his reputation with fellow EU leaders, while his decision last week to nudge closer to a referendum of some sort was forced on him to counter internal division. Promises of a possible referendum will not sate the appetite of Conservatives such as former defence secretary Liam Fox. They will return for more. The danger is that tactical moves made by Cameron in response to circumstance could end up having a strategic effect.

Ruling out a straight choice between leaving or staying in the EU, Cameron cites the possibility of a referendum on conditions of membership, on an unspecified date, after talks to win back powers. However, the electoral timetable dictates he will have to go further. The real question may be not whether a referendum will be held, but how can it be avoided.

Everything, of course, depends on Cameron winning the 2015 election, which is far from guaranteed. Equally, it would require a Conservative parliamentary majority, because the rump that will be left of the Liberal Democrats would not agree to a referendum, if their numbers were needed.

There is a danger Cameron could be humiliated in subsequent EU negotiations and left to return Duke of York-style to London with nothing, or with results little short of nothing. The same applies to Ed Miliband, if he was elected and embarked on a similar route. UKIP is expected to do well in the 2014 European Parliament elections, which are fought on a list system rather than first past the post, further inflaming the concern of Conservatives about their own futures.

In time, the euro zone’s growing centralisation will convince some still unaligned in the UK that it must do something to alter its position, rather than simply being increasingly sidelined because it does not want to become more involved.

SO WHAT WOULDit all mean for the Republic? A UK departure remains, for now, a long-odds possibility; but an ever-more distant relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU is already a reality, one dramatically accelerated by the euro crisis. That acceleration will continue.

The Republic has already made its choice: to be part of the EU’s inner core, whatever the cost. The UK – even if it is not sure what it wants that it can get – has yet to decide.

Relations between the Republic and the UK have never been better, but in time it could become more difficult for the Republic to keep close both to the British and to partners elsewhere. The implications for the Republic depend on the UK’s final decision, should it come to one, but if nothing else such uncertainty is in itself a threat.

The Republic and the UK already move at different speeds in the EU. Both exist outside the Schengen free-travel area, with few complications. The situation provoked by departure – and, again, the unlikelihood of this must be emphasised – would endanger the Common Travel Area agreement made in 1923, its greatest impact being on Northern Ireland.

Travel between the Republic and Britain already requires documents, if only to get on an aircraft. Controls between the Republic and Northern Ireland would be an impossibility, so departure would revive aborted plans for passport-only travel between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The situation has existed before. Free travel between Britain and Ireland, and Britain and Northern Ireland was abandoned during the second World War, and was maintained, despite furious Unionist protests, until 1952.

Equally, there would be concern that a debate about the UK’s EU membership would impact on the tenor of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, which would, in turn, have implications for the self-confidence of Unionists.

The glue in the Anglo-Irish relationship is Northern Ireland, even if too many in London and some in Dublin believe it does not now need to be constantly emphasised: “Our relationship is decided by geography, before everything else,” said one Irish diplomat.

So it will remain for decades to come. Up to the 1980s, relationships at official levels were nonexistent, poor, dismissive or poisonous, but 30 years of graft has transformed matters.

Up to recently, it could be argued that the relationships of the Republic’s political and official elite were stronger with the UK than with anyone else, although the higher role now being adopted by EU prime ministers and their staff is altering the scene.

“Once upon a time these people or their predecessors met twice a year. Now they are meeting 10 times a year, or more. That is changing the dynamic and changing the abilities of systems to act,” said one source.

A UK departure or partial withdrawal would, if anything, lead to more effort from London with its bilateral relationship with Dublin, on the basis that friends must be nurtured wherever they can be found. In March, Taoiseach Enda Kenny trumpeted the signing of a Declaration of Co-Operation at No 10 Downing Street with Cameron, even if it was somewhat hyped by the Irish side and remains relatively unformed. But it has possibilities.

Talks on greater energy ties, particularly over the sale of Irish-generated renewable energy, for instance, are proceeding apace, while the Republic’s banking crisis brought home to London the dangers of the UK’s exposure to the Republic when matters go awry.

Trade is strong, and growing. Yet, despite the much-heralded top-line figures, too many Irish-owned firms are overly dependent on the UK as their sole export market. Again, British marginalisation would make little difference. Withdrawal would be an entirely different beast.

For years, the Republic and the UK have been of one mind on the need to expand the EU’s single market. Equally, there are common views on financial services taxes and corporation tax. However, both differ fundamentally on the Common Agricultural Policy and issues such as employment law.

“We don’t agree with them on everything, far from it; but it suits us to have them around,” an Irish diplomatic source says. “There are geographical, cultural, economic ties that exist with London that do not exist with anyone else. Let us hope that they do nothing.”

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