To be or not to be, that is the question. No, I’m not from quoting Hamlet’s soliloquy, but UK Prime Minister David – ‘Call me Dave’ – Cameron on asking Britons where they fit…in or out of the European Union. Bluntly put and as simple as that.
After threatening for what seemed a small, political eternity to pull the trigger on a referendum, he finally found the balls and gall to do it, by saying last Thursday the people would have the choice of being Europeans or plain, old Brits.
Well almost, nearly, not quite, perhaps and subject to more caveats than I’ve got odd socks.
Firstly, the plebiscite won’t happen until 2017 at the earliest. It will also take place only if the Conservatives, minus meddling Europhile Lib-Dems, win an outright majority in the 2015 general election. And that’s no given.
Furthermore, making we, the public, judge and jury will depend on what renegotiated terms Dave can wring out of fellow EU leaders beforehand about reforming some of the bloc’s barmier rules and returning sovereignty, ceded under various arcane treaties, back to Britain (the European Court of Human Rights overriding the justice of Britain’s Supreme Court is a prime example).
Of course, the bait of a referendum could be just political brinksmanship to outflank the expanding appeal of UKIP and mop the fevered brows of Tory Eurosceptics, who would rather go back to minting groats than having the euro foisted upon them and dread the creeping, centralised control of Brussels’ Europrats.
For his part, Dave’s made his personal intentions transparent, insists he does not want Britain to quit the 27-nation alignment and would ‘fight with all my heart and soul’ for a ‘Yes’ vote if/when the time comes.
But he does concede the British public’s latent mistrust of the EU is growing and democratic consent is now ‘wafer thin’. Plus, it is nearly 38 years since our island nation had a say in their EU future and way back then, in 1975, it was for a free-trade Common Market, not a United States of Europe.
The fragility of the euro hasn’t contributed to confidence, even if Britain has chosen to retain the £. And many older-timers amongst the electorate harbour xenophobic inclinations, probably best summed up by a London newspaper headline of the 1930s, stating, ‘Fog in Channel – Continent cut off.’
These rather archaic views, I suspect, are not shared by a younger, cosmopolitan generation, whom Dave hopes will drive him over the ‘Yes’ vote line, if only they can be persuaded to bother turning out if/when said referendum happens.
Meanwhile, the knee-jerk reaction from our European buddies to Dave’s announcement has been predictably mixed.
The French (who else!) say they’ll put out the red carpet ushering us to the exit, though German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is more sanguine, saying she was prepared to ‘talk about British wishes’ to try and achieve a ‘fair compromise’.
But then pragmatic ‘Mutti’ (Mother) Merkel understands the benefits of having Britain on board, because her voters are wearied of paying for what they perceive are feckless Latins living on tick and anonymous paper-shufflers inventing new rules, based on a half-baked, Gallic model of a Euro superstate.
Plus, Merkel knows Brits share the Anglo-Saxon work ethic and mercantile values with her folk, as do the Swedes, who stuck to their krone and equally abhor the omnipotence of Brussels.
All three nations – along with Holland – are cognisant of the advantages of being part of a trading bloc, with 300 million potential consumers, and believe they stick more rigidly to the EU rules, however daft some are, than the laissez-faire Southerners.
Anyone – like yours truly – who has lived south of whatever notional border divides the EU geographically and politically knows how stupidly hidebound bureaucracy is in countries like Spain, France, Portugal, Italy and Greece. They realise, too, that welters of red tape can be hacked away, leaving a sleeker, fairer and more functional society, where greater transparency reigns and corruption is marginalised.
That is basically what the majority of Britons seek, most of all less European interference in the affairs of a country that has fashioned itself into a bastion of democracy, warts and all, over a millennium.
In other words the old free-trade deal.
That’s why I believe Dave’s ‘In or out’ question to the masses is the wrong one and a high-stakes gambit, which – if it turned turtle – would play into the hands of our foes across the Channel (of which there are many).
The question I think the PM should have posed is, ‘Do you prefer a Common Market or a centralised United States of Europe?’
I’d guess Brits would opt for the Market, which would placate Eurosceptics and leave him with enough wriggle room to renegotiate better terms for the UK.
It would also have armed him with a mandate that left Britain retaining a seat at the EU high table, fired a warning shot across the federalists’ bows and given our allies (we have some of those, too) confidence they could stand beside us and push against further, unwarranted integration.
However, this is not the time yet to discuss the emotional aspects of a highly emotive topic. Tempers need to cool and the pros and cons carefully weighed before such a momentous decision can be reached.
Besides, it may never happen. At least in 2017.
The EU may fragment by then, though the euros’ ills seem less critical than a half-year ago, before the European Central Bank vowed to ride, like the Seventh Cavalry, to further rescues (but remember the fate of Colonel Custer).
Still, in putting his money where his mouth and posing such a direct, ‘In/Out’ question, Dave has taken a monumental gamble on Britain’s future.
And his party could pay the ultimate price for it…the UK’s excommunication from the EU and no veto over new treaties that underpin an eventual United States of Europe.