EU vote is example of democracy running ahead of history

UK politics: Timing of the EU membership referendum is too early to be meaningful

David Cameron has given Britons the referendum on EU membership that Margaret Thatcher denied them. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA Wire

David Cameron has given Britons the referendum on EU membership that Margaret Thatcher denied them. Photograph: John Stillwell/PA Wire

 

Britain’s involvement in the European project has been a masterclass that makes us cringe. We are sure we are getting it wrong somehow: too slow to join at the start, too soft to have our own way now, serial dupes among wily continentals.

This sting of embarrassment cannot be based on the record of events, which shows a nation dodging the euro and the borderless world of Schengen, while pushing the EU eastward and founding a single market. The worst that can be said of our big European decisions is that we fluked them.

In diplomacy no less than romance, a lack of emotional engagement allows you to hedge and keep options open while the other party subjugates their judgment to enthusiasm. Britain has navigated the EU’s many-angled maze with some success because it is not mesmerised by the teleology of ending centuries of war. The UK’s benign experience of self-government means it can judge supranational experiments by their merits, not as steps to a certain destiny. If you are not running away from the past, you do not crash into stuff.

If there is a smudge on Britain’s record in Europe, it is the timing of its great democratic consultations. The first referendum was too early to be useful, the second has the same feel of premature fuss. Voters had a direct say in 1975, after just two years inside the European Economic Community. They could have known little about the club’s ambitions and future members. They were asked to throw a dart at a board in a poorly lit room.

Had it happened in 1986, when the Single European Act exchanged national sovereignty for one giant marketplace, voters could have ratified or rejected that big bang of integration. Had they said no, the single market (a British idea) and its accompanying regulation (the French quid pro quo) may not exist now in recognisable form.

Verdict on membership

This can only mean Europe has enriched us or, at worst, failed to hold us back decisively. There is no third option: it cannot have been a disaster unless modern Britain is a disaster. And if membership is good to neutral, you have to prize sovereignty as an end in itself (and believe it really is on offer outside the EU) to go through the commotion of leaving.

None of this applies if the referendum is actually a bet on the future. In the next decade integration could stall, unwind or tighten. If the euro zone gains some of the characteristics of a country, with shared arrangements for fiscal policy and debt, it may also become the decision-making body of the EU in all but name. Britain would be in the invidious position of rubber-stamping decisions made elsewhere.

If the case for membership is the ability to influence laws that affect us regardless, that case would shrivel.

This scenario vexes the government even more than the dread of uncontrollable migration. But, with a referendum to win, Britain’s renegotiation of membership terms prioritised trimming welfare entitlements for migrants. Next to those concessions, the safeguards negotiated against euro zone domination amount to a study in ambiguity.

Perhaps fear of the currency bloc is overdone. Perhaps it will respect British sensitivities, namely about our financial services. The European Court of Justice has struck down an attempt to ensure that euro-denominated transactions can be cleared only in the euro zone.

Uncertain future

The referendum is happening too early to be meaningful. There is nothing to stop us having another one later, some say, except there is. Referendums take place so rarely because they require an alignment of political variables, not least a government with a taste for risk.

Tories who seethe at the sight of David Cameron, the prime minister who gave them their referendum, unaccountably forgive Margaret Thatcher for withholding one. And the referendum could itself have a dynamic effect on events, with a Remain win signalling to the euro zone British assent to its integration. In 2016, we do not know what we are staying in or getting out of. We should have waited, and trusted the British way of sublime equivocation. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2016

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