A “Daily Mail” poll last week revealed a sudden shift: 51% of UK voters now want to leave the EU, whereas 49% want to stay in.
This big change in opinion seems to be related to the refugee crisis, because the poll also shows voters strongly back David Cameron’s unwillingness to accommodate large numbers of refugees – as against Angela Merkel’s support for all EU countries to take in a substantial quota.
This turnaround shows how a referendum result on a particular day can turn on unexpected events, and how a permanent decision can be influenced by temporary phenomena.
The UK already had a referendum on whether to stay in the EU in 1975. Now it is to have another by 2017. But will this 2016/2017 referendum settle the question?
Eurosceptics like Nigel Farage have welcomed Cameron’s decision to change the wording of the question UK voters will be asked to decide on: from a “Yes” or “No” to UK membership to one which asks whether they want to “remain” in, or “leave”, the Union.
The Electoral Commission felt the earlier formulation favoured those who wanted the UK to stay in the EU.
“Leave” implies an active, “remain“ could be construed as endorsing a passive, choice.. “Yes” would have implied positivity, “No” negativity. Generally people prefer to be positive. So perhaps Farage is right to be happy.
The bigger risk here is in the political reality that, in a referendum, temporary considerations, such as anger at current government policy on an entirely unrelated matter, may induce people to make a permanent decision they would not normally make.
That is why I prefer parliamentary democracy to referendum democracy.
But a referendum is what we are going to have so it behoves everyone in all EU-28 countries to do what they can to ensure, if they want the UK to stay in, that the negotiation is concluded in a way that presents the EU in the best possible light to the UK electorate.
The UK’s negotiating approach, and the frame of mind in which the UK people approach the negotiations, are important here too. If the UK gets a good deal that is endorsed in a referendum, will UK citizens then fully commit to the EU, or will they retain an attitude of conditional and sceptical membership, waiting for the next opportunity to find fault?
Britain has form
In 2003, I was chairman of the committee of the Convention on the Future of Europe which dealt with Justice and Home Affairs. Our task was to redraft the provisions of the EU Treaties dealing with cross-border crimes. The UK had long been suspicious of continental courts having jurisdiction over its citizens and wanted to limit EU activity in this field.
At each stage in the negotiation, the other parties went as far as they thought they could to accommodate UK concerns, only to find that once that was settled, the UK came back looking for more concessions on the same points.
The Convention’s “final” draft of the proposed EU Constitution was not final. The UK looked for, and got, even more concessions in the draft approved by the Heads of Government.
Then, when the Constitution failed in referenda in France and the Netherlands, and was replaced by a slightly slimmed down Lisbon “Treaty”, the UK looked for, and got, yet more concessions on their concerns, with a right to opt in and out at will.
Will the other states go all the way to their bottom lines in the negotiation of the “improved” terms of UK membership if they think the UK will adopt a similar tactic and keep coming back for more? They will ask themselves how an EU of 28 members would work, if every country took that UK approach.
Suppose the final deal is one that satisfies UK voters by a narrow margin, will future UK governments then be likely to go on looking for further concessions afterwards, on the same issues, every time there have to be further revisions of the EU Treaties?
If the answer to these questions is yes, and there are many in the UK who will never be satisfied with what the EU offers, then the other 27 members may hold back from their maximum concession.
David Cameron may then find he has raised domestic expectations unduly and fail to convince voters to “remain”.
Or he may find that his electorate wants to “experiment” with leaving the EU, just as many US voters want to experiment with Donald Trump or some UK voters seem to want to experiment with Jeremy Corbyn.
UK voters may also see the referendum as an opportunity to “make a statement” about their sense of who they are, rather than make a final, fully considered, decision about the future of Europe.
So we must indeed prepare for the possibility of an EU without the UK.