When David Cameron promised a referendum on his country’s membership of the EU, the British Prime Minister probably hoped he would never have to hold it. That was his first miscalculation. The second is that it may well cost Cameron his premiership and lead to a premature departure from Downing Street.
Cameron made the announcement in January 2013, more than two years before the next general election after which it was supposed to take place. At the time, the promise was meant to calm his Eurosceptic Tory colleagues who made Cameron’s life hard. It was also calculated to reduce the electoral appeal of the UK Independence Party.
One thing, however, it was not: A reflection of Cameron’s burning desire to bring the question of Britain’s EU membership to a head. Had it been to him, he would have preferred to just ignore the toxic European question which has plagued his party for two generations.
Indeed, had Cameron not won an absolute majority in the Commons after the May 2015 election, he would have had a good excuse not to deliver on his promise. Certainly another coalition with the Europhile Liberal Democrats would have allowed Cameron to backtrack.
It would not have been the first promised EU referendum not to be held after all: A decade ago, all major British parties had pledged to put the EU’s new Constitution to the vote. Once that was relabelled the Lisbon Treaty, it did not come to that.
Ironically for Cameron, his election victory backfired on him. Not only did he now have to deliver the referendum. He also had to do so against the backdrop of an EU that is most visibly in crisis mode. Seen from across the British Channel, one might well wonder why one would want to belong to a club which does not find answers to its fiscal, monetary and border problems.
But Cameron also had to start the path to the Brexit referendum against a strengthened Tory party. Its Commons majority and the fact that Labour is in disarray under its new leader Jeremy Corbyn is encouraging Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers to do the job of the opposition themselves.
On what Cameron proclaimed to be the goals of his EU negotiations, which he wanted to put to the ‘In or Out’ referendum, he was never going to win. It was simply not plausible that within just a few months Britain would receive substantial concessions from the other 27 EU members, enshrined in legally binding Treaty Law. It was equally clear that Cameron had to pretend that whatever he achieved was a stunning success.
In fact, what Cameron got was more than nothing — but less than something. It was a mainly symbolic concession by the EU that Britain would not have to participate in further steps on the path to European integration.
Yes, Cameron got an assurance that Britain would never have to join the eurozone — as if that had really been on the cards. Yes, he got some concessions on welfare rights of EU citizens in Britain — but that is not the same as having full control over the UK’s borders. He also received a guarantee that Britain would not have to participate in further steps towards European political union. Again, no one would have expected Britain to be part of this anyway.
In short, Cameron mainly received nice rhetoric from Brussels. It is not what he really wanted, let alone what his Eurosceptical colleagues expected.
And yet, even though the result is quite meaningless for Britain, it is still meaningful for the EU as a whole. Why? Because for the first time in the EU’s history, it shows that European integration can go into reverse. It does not matter that the concessions offered to Britain are tiny. It is the direction of travel that counts.
So no matter what the outcome of Britain’s ‘Brexit’ referendum will be: It has already changed the nature of the EU. From a one-way street towards ever closer union towards a community of convenience from which members can withdraw.
For the EU as an institution and for David Cameron personally, it might get worse from here. After five of Cameron’s cabinet ministers and London Mayor Boris Johnson have now joined the Brexit campaign, it is well possible that the referendum will still reject Cameron’s EU deal and pull Britain out of the EU altogether.
It is hard to put odds on this but it is not entirely implausible that this could happen. If it did, it would be such a blow to Cameron’s authority, already damaged by the euro divisions within his party, that he would have to resign. This would probably catapult Cameron’s arch rival Boris Johnson into No. 10.
British proceedings to withdraw from the EU would be a massive blow to the EU, obviously. In such a case, withdrawal proceedings would be conducted under European Treaty Law and could take as long as two years. The EU, already busy with fighting the eurocrisis and the migration crisis, would have to spent considerable time and effort on dealing with Britain’s departure.
And maybe not just Britain’s. If the second-largest European economy pulled out of the EU project, it would certainly encourage other Eurosceptical parties across Europe to do the same — or at least try to negotiate better membership conditions for themselves.
When Cameron announced the vague plan of an ‘In or Out’ referendum in early 2013, it was a gamble. The way things are going for the Prime Minister at the moment, it could tear apart his party, pull Britain out of the EU, damage the EU — and destroy his own premiership.
The coming months until the June referendum will be a crucial time for Britain and Europe. Neither of which will be the same any more irrespective of the result.