The Cameron Neverendum: the Gold Standard for Uncertainty


By Mark McNaught

In his speech on January 23rd, David Cameron proposed a UK in/out referendum on adhesion to the EU.  The ‘in’ is predicated on Britain renegotiating its relationship with the EU so that it can have the common market and precious little else.  The ‘out’ is one way, no return.

There are so many contingencies, and so much hypocrisy, that it is difficult to know where to begin.

Under the terms set out by Cameron, in order for the UK to remain in Europe there must be a fundamental renegotiation of the relationship with Europe.  Apparently, labour laws on working conditions and equality of pay for women, cross-border police coordination, and environmental regulations are among many tyrannical violations of UK sovereignty.

However, he did not specify any provisions of the EU treaties that he would seek to change.  Perhaps this is understandable, in that he has no idea what concessions he could extract.  He is like a politically possessed zombie walking into a diplomatic mire in the fog, the depth of which he cannot fathom.

The EU is not a glamorous, sexy institution.  Having accomplished its principal raison d’être, preventing war between the states, it is now dealing with wrenching, severe financial crises in several member states.  Despite the evident friction, almost all the other member states see the value in sticking together and working out these issues on a collective basis.  What’s that word … solidarity?

The UK already has a special status in the EU, eschewing the euro and not being signatory to certain treaties.  Granting the status Cameron vaguely defines would require reopening numerous treaties, renegotiating them, then seeking to have them re-ratified.  No one knows where that would lead, and what other demands could be made by other member-states which could unravel the EU.  These treaties took decades to negotiate and ratify, and petty UK demands could undo them.  Maybe this is what eurosceptics want.

On the continent, the current UK government is often perceived as the ungrateful spoiled brat: the one who wants to dictate the rules of the game, and if not will take the ball and go home.  Given the hellish economic straits many states are going through, it is likely Cameron will find that many EU leaders will encourage him to go home and play with himself.

If the Conservatives do win a majority in 2015, and are unable to obtain an arrangement with Europe which will mollify the sceptics, there is a real possibility that the UK will leave the EU in a referendum.  What could this mean?

First, the idea that the UK could voluntarily leave the EU yet seamlessly remain part of the common market is fantasy.  Does one actually think that upon a ‘let’s bugger off’ verdict in a referendum, the EU would be delighted to extend favourable trade privileges to the UK?  As Norway has found, being part of the common market without being an EU member still requires having to live by many rules the eurosceptics hate.

In the event of a UK withdrawal, would all EU citizens from other countries living and working in the UK be forced to repatriate?  Would all UK citizens living throughout Europe be forced to move back to the UK, even those with settled children and families?

Would the UK police be required to shut down cross border criminal inquiries and cooperation?  Would UK labour laws be ‘free’ to revert to Dickensian status?

These questions but scratch the surface of the implications of the UK leaving the EU.  They should, however, focus the minds of those Scots ambivalent about independence.  Given the UK track record in allaying uncertainty on Scottish independence, don’t expect to be enlightened by Westminster.

Rather, expect monumental uncertainty for business and investment, as well as Cameron twisting into a pretzel over Europe until the 2014 referendum, and beyond.  If Scotland votes ‘yes’ to independence, one hopes UK citizens will focus on what EU withdrawal means in that aftermath: in 80 years Great Britain will have gone from the biggest empire the world has ever known to an isolated rump state cut off from its neighbours.  We’ll see what they decide.

In any case, the only way for Scots to clear up this uncertainty for themselves is to vote ‘yes’, then negotiate continued EU adhesion from within before full independence in 2016.  Whatever Barroso says, the EU will not instigate a nasty divorce with Scotland and ask for a tedious new courtship in the event of independence.  Scots would have recourse to the European Court of Human Rights: the EU cannot strip its citizens of the rights and protections of their treaties, simply for exercising their right to self-determination.

The EU will figure out a way to keep Scotland in, because they have bigger fish to fry.  They will be relieved to have Scotland as a pleasant and constructive partner to work with.

Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.