April 19, 2013 7:06 pm

To stay in Europe, vote Conservative

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Confronted with this logical paradox, politicians react with snorts of denial. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? writes Timothy Garton Ash
©Jonathan McHugh

Try this paradox for size. If you are a British voter and want the UK to make a clear decision to stay in the EU, vote Conservative. If your first concern is the strength of the Conservative party, vote Labour.

Let me explain. Just as only an anti-communist president, Richard Nixon, could make America’s opening to Communist China, so only a Conservative prime minister can win the “in or out” referendum that David Cameron has committed himself to holding before the end of 2017, midway through the next parliament. In recent opinion polls, 40-50 per cent of respondents say they want Britain to leave the EU. But asked how they would vote if the prime minister announced that he had secured a better deal for Britain, in negotiations with our European partners, the balance shifts decisively. According to a Harris poll, 12 per cent of those who would currently vote for Britain to leave the EU say they would “definitely” change their minds, and a further 47 per cent would “possibly” do so.

Another polling organisation, YouGov, found that in this hypothetical situation the camp in favour of staying in the EU wins by two to one. Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, identifies a large set of UK voters – 42 per cent – whom he calls Worried Nationalists. Who can reassure the Worried Nationalists? Only the Conservatives.

Across the Channel, Mr Cameron will not get far with the two “R” words loved by his eurosceptic backbenchers – renegotiation and repatriation. But there is a growing appetite in many European countries for another R word: reform. The prime minister’s intention, and best hope, is to fold his R-words into theirs, securing some of what he wants under the banner of reform to make what he calls a more “flexible” Europe. Despite the pleasant mood music emerging from last weekend’s meeting with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, he will get only so far with this. Most of Britain’s European partners are in no mood to do him any special favours.

Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, has asked a pertinent question: achieving what percentage of your renegotiation goals would persuade you to recommend a Yes vote – 80 per cent, 50 per cent? Now, Mr Cameron would run a country mile rather than admit this, but the honest answer should be: 0 per cent. Even if he won no special concessions at all for the UK, the fundamental arguments of national interest for staying in the EU – arguments he spelt out eloquently in the peroration of his speech in January announcing the referendum – would remain compelling.

The reality of EU negotiation means it will not be 0 per cent. There are things other member states want that Britain also wants, or in return for which it can secure some of its own wish list. Small successes can be wrapped up in big, colourful boxes for presentation to voters – which is what Labour prime minister Harold Wilson did with the minimal results of his “renegotiation”, so as to win Britain’s last European referendum, in 1975. Mr Cameron would have the support of the two main opposition parties and much of British business.

So I would lay a bet that such a referendum would result in a majority for staying in. This would be Britain’s “Nixon to China” moment. But here’s the other half of the paradox: that outcome would split the Tories. A significant minority of the parliamentary party, its national membership and its voters could not accept that the Conservatives – of all people – had led the country into a historic vote to stay in the hated EU. The more modest the changes achieved, the larger that minority would be. In the UK Independence party – currently outpolling the Liberal Democrats – those eurosceptic diehards would find a welcoming home. The result could be a split in the Tory party comparable to that which occurred over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846.

If, therefore, your priority is the unity of the Conservative party, you should vote Labour or Liberal Democrat. If you want Britain to make up its collective mind about staying in the EU, rather than remaining Europe’s fence-sitting mugwump, vote Conservative.

When I put this coolly logical paradox to senior politicians of all parties, they react with snorts of denial. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? And the proposition may not be put to the test for some time. Anything could happen before the general election scheduled for May 2015, but opinion polls currently predict a victory for Labour.

What then? Labour, with or without Lib Dem coalition partners, would drop the Tories’ two R-words and focus on the third: reform. It would do everything possible to avoid the fourth: referendum. And with good reason. Facing the long-term consequences of a deep recession and a Conservative party under a new leader urging a No vote, backed by Ukip and a mainly eurosceptic press, a Labour-led government probably could not reassure enough worried nationalists to enable it to win a Yes vote during the next parliament.

Yet the demand will not go away. Although it ranks way down the list of British voters’ priorities, more than half say that they would like an in-or-out vote. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have promised not to repeal the 2011 European Union act, which requires a referendum in the case of any significant further transfer of sovereignty to the EU.

It may be possible to argue that the modest treaty changes for which Wolfgang Schäuble, German finance minister, has been pressing, such as giving legal authority for a banking union, do not trigger this “referendum lock”. However, if the eurozone is saved and begins to prosper, with more elements of a banking, fiscal and political union, the tradition of European integration – including the German constitutionalist approach – suggests there will sooner or later be a new EU-wide treaty, with further powers transferred to Brussels. Depending on that treaty’s shape and timing, a Labour or Lib-Lab government might just avoid the reckoning in the run-up to another election at the end of this decade.

From 2020, at the latest, the jaws of paradox will finally bite. It will then be for the Tory leader to decide if he or she will put country before party.

The writer is professor of European studies at Oxford university and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University

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