An EU referendum will be a nightmare for Britain. But it has to happen

There is palpable confidence in the Tory party that David Cameron will still be prime minister after the general election. It flows not from any surge in public enthusiasm for the idea of Conservative government, but from a lack of evidence that voters are ready to trust Ed Miliband with power.

But as a second term in government comes into focus for the Tories, it also brings another spectre from the past: the civil war over Europe, deferral of which has been a defining feature of Cameron’s leadership. The promise to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU has been a modest success. It has not suffocated Ukip, nor even stopped Tory MPs defecting to Nigel Farage’s side. But it has comforted others with the illusion of agreeing on something about which they disagree. The vote may one day rip the Conservative party in half, but on the question of whether that day should come they are strangely united.

As a tool for party management the referendum’s utility expires in May, two-and-a-half years before the deadline Cameron has set himself for holding the vote. It is hard to imagine a less auspicious genesis for a government policy. The first thing the newly returned prime minister would have to do is start planning for something that is also the last thing he wants to spend his time doing. He would have to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership, knowing that there is no deal that could satisfy the militant sceptics. Other member states have more important things to do than help Cameron in his quest for a formula that somehow severs and preserves Britain’s ties to Brussels at the same time.

Cameron says the reforms he envisages require treaty revisions. That cannot happen before the crisis in the eurozone has been stabilised, which may take years. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is stress-testing European solidarity via war in Ukraine. In the past month, jihadi terrorism has struck in Paris and Copenhagen – a borderless threat to which national governments cannot respond in isolation. In that context there is not much pan-European appetite for a special treaty negotiation only Britain wants. Cameron looks like the man who sees his neighbour’s house on fire and comes round to claim items that were borrowed years ago.

Full article: An EU referendum will be a nightmare for Britain. But it has to happen (The Guardian)

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