Mark Mardell had an excellent post on his BBC Euroblog yesterday on the trouble with all these calls for a referendum on the reform treaty in the UK. Cameron is now being pressed by Labour to promise that if he were prime minister he would call a referendum on the treaty, even if it had been voted through by the House of Commons. Of course Cameron can’t make any such promise because he knows it was idiotic for Labour to promise a referendum on the constitution in the first place because that’s what’s giving them trouble now. Given that he’s making political hay about calling this a “trust” issue, he would be incredibly short-sighted to set himself up for the same trap.
Because you see he can’t put the vote to a referendum either, because no matter which way it turns out it would hurt him as a new prime minister. The assumption is that were the treaty voted on in the UK the result would be ‘no,’ not on the actual merits of the treaty but because the British public is widely sceptical of EU expansion. But if the referendum were to result in a yes, it would look like a political defeat for Cameron right at the start of his leadership (assuming the Conservatives push for a no vote).
But even if the result is a no, he’s still in trouble. As Mardell writes:
"The leaders of France, Germany, 24 other states and the European Commission would be incandescent with fury.As I’ve written before, what the British public doesn’t understand (because they aren't being told) is that this isn’t just a vote on a treaty. Given that this treaty is an essential tidying up of aspects of the EU that donot work, a no vote on the treaty would essentially be a no vote to the EU, and that isn’t a simple process. Britain is so deeply engrained into the EU at this point that extracting it would be a massive, time-consuming and expensive process. Given that a majority of Brits want to remain in the EU, how could anyone make the argument that the massive pain that this would entail is worth it?
They certainly wouldn’t abandon the treaty, if they had all endorsed it by that stage. Britain would have to negotiate some separate deal. It’s unlikely a few more red lines and opt-outs would satisfy Mr. Cameron’s party - or be on offer from the rest of the EU. The options would range from full withdrawal, which would probably mean negotiating 26 new treaties with our ex-partners, to some semi-detachedrelationship with the EU itself. The exact course the government should follow would be eagerly debated by Europhiles, Europhobes, Euro-realists, semi-detachers, re-negotiators, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
Being Norway or Switzerland might prove of great benefit to the UK. But becoming Switzerland or Norway would be painful and a long-drawn-out process. Ministers who had hoped to turn their backs on Brussels would find themselves spending even more time there, negotiating changes to the common fisheries policy, disentangling themselves from the common agricultural policy, working out what would happen to trade negotiations without Commissioner Mandelson at the helm, and so on. And of course, as we all know, there can be no institutional change under the Conservatives without a referendum. So ministers would be gearing up for another time-, effort- and money-consuming referendum on a new treaty."
This is why the calls for a referendum are nothing but political theatre. Whichever side was in the opposition would be yammering on about it because it’s an easy populist issue. But the reality is that if Britain wants to remain in the EU, this treaty must be passed. And if the conservatives were being honest with people, they would be demanding a referendum on EU membership itself, not on the treaty.