Divorce is not simple
I am on leave this week so won’t be blogging much, although I hope to post my regular Thursday article.
I also hope I will return from Britain with a better feel for the way the domestic politics around the Lisbon Treaty is developing.
One of the wonderful things about the internet is that whether I am in Latvia or Lisbon I can read the British papers.
It already seems that I have to confess I am wrong on one point. I always thought it was wishful thinking on the part of Labour strategists that as soon as Europe became a hot issue it would automatically reignite the Conservative civil war.
The troops are gathering before our eyes.
A matter of trust
He is reluctant to concede. This is very dangerous territory for a leader who has made the case for a referendum a matter of trust.
What’s he got to worry about? Well, wrecking his chances to be a popular PM before he’s even started.
The assumption throughout Europe and the British political classes is that Britain would vote “No” to the treaty, if people were given a say. Presumably a newly-elected Conservative government would actually be campaigning for this “No” vote. So the assumption is of an easy victory.
Still, politicans can’t take victory for granted.
No newly-elected prime minister would want take even a slight risk of an authority-sapping defeat.
So, a financially drained, physically exhausted Conservative party - the first Conservative administration for more than a decade - eager to get on with its exciting new plans, would be plunged into a new campaign almost immediately.
Who knows, a demoralised and defeated Labour Party under a younger and more pro-European leader might even feel buoyed-up by a chance of a bit of guerrilla warfare? Many would feel it was a distraction.
A detaching treaty
But supposing Prime Minister Cameron held and won such a referendum. Would that be that? Would his troubles would be over?
The leaders of France, Germany, 24 other states and the European Commission would be incandescent with fury.
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-detached relationship 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.
Incidentally, for some reason the political classes have decided that Gordon Brown’s promise to block further institutional reform is the same as a promise to stop any further integration.
This is almost certainly either falling for spin, or a desire to hold the prime minister to a promise he never made.
Or it may just be confusing two words, which after all are quite long and both begin with the letters “i” and “n”. So, ladies and gentlemen, what were the incontestable, incandescent, inconsolable, insistently instant instructions from our prime minister?
What he said was that he would oppose further institutional changes, and suggested this would hold good at least until 2014.
Of course, institutional changes can mean further integration, but they are not the same thing.
It’s a bit like someone saying they’re cutting out lunch, and others taking it to be a promise never to have a sandwich, because people often have sandwiches for lunch.
Take an example. If the European Union proposed that all police in Europe should wear the British bobby’s helmet, emblazoned with the words “Evenin' All” in golden European stars, this would seem to me to be a significant act of further integration.
But it could be done under existing rules, if everyone agreed – or, under the new rules, by majority voting. It doesn’t require institutional change.
So Mr Brown’s words are indeed a blow to those who love navel-gazing. (Why navels are singled out as a metaphor for self-absorption, I don’t quite know – it’s not a fascination I have ever come across in real life.) But few think any further institutional changes are required, because “ever closer union” doesn’t require them.
He won't do it
But I digress. Back to Prime Minister Cameron’s first term and the new relationship with the European Union. While some will say, “It’s simple, just walk away,” divorce, separation, or even sleeping in different rooms, is not simple.
Other states might veer from wanting to punish Britain, to being merely stand-offish, but they wouldn’t be helpful and would probably adopt a stance that would highlight the difficulties of disentanglement.
The whole process would be top of the news half the time and absorb much of the prime minister’s attention.
And the cry, “What about schools?” “What about hospitals?” would go up. A Conservative MEP who wants a very different relationship with the EU volunteered that it would take something of a granite-willed monomanic like Enoch Powell to achieve this.
He concluded such beasts no longer existed in British politics, or at least didn’t get to become party leaders or prime ministers.
It might be morally correct, historically far-sighted and extremely popular to give a referendum on a treaty that had already been ratified, but it would dominate Prime Minister Cameron’s first term. And that’s why he won’t do it then, any more than Gordon Brown will do it now.