Despite special concessions, the outcome of the June 23 referendum is difficult to predict
British Prime Minister David Cameron should rejoice, for he has achieved the seemingly unachievable. He has negotiated a deal which grants his country a number of key advantages inside the European Union, the sort of special deal no other EU member-state enjoys.
He has also succeeded in avoiding any new obligations: Britain remains outside both the euro single currency and the Schengen border-free immigration arrangements but somehow will continue to be treated as an equal decision-maker in Europe. This must be the most perfect diplomatic example of having one's cake and eating it.
But instead of celebrating the achievement, the mood in London is one of anxiety. For with exactly 120 days left before the referendum scheduled for June 23 when the people of Britain will be asked to pass their verdict on this deal by deciding whether their country should remain a member of the EU, the outcome remains utterly unpredictable. And the gamble which Mr Cameron has taken by holding the referendum is huge: one wrong move will spell not only the ignominious end of his career, but also almost certainly the break-up of the United Kingdom.
European leaders were always bewildered by the hang-ups the British seem to have about the EU: "The UK has always been a reluctant bride, ever since it joined," remarked Mr Alexander Stubb, a former prime minister of Finland and a noted Anglophile. But, historically, the British reluctance is easily explainable.
As a trading island, Britain's economy did not depend on Europe, but on global trade; Britain forged the biggest empire the world has ever known by simply ignoring Europe. As far as generations of Britons were concerned, Europe was the continent where military coups were mounted, kings were beheaded and property rights trampled underfoot; the wisest policy for any British government, therefore, was to keep out of European affairs whenever possible.
Of course, that did not prevent generations of Britons from taking their holidays in Europe, or from admiring the cuisine, art or culture of other European nations. But liking such things was never the same as viewing Britain as part of them; to this day, Europe is referred to by most Britons as "the Continent", an amorphous mass which is just "over there". Winston Churchill, arguably Britain's greatest prime minister, summed up this complex back in 1930 when he ruled out the possibility that Great Britain could ever be part of a future European alliance because: "We have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed."
Britain ignored Churchill's advice and joined the EU in 1973 - almost two decades after the organisation was established - only because it exhausted all other options. Rightly or wrongly, for the Brits the EU has never been about vision, but about practicalities such as facilitating trade; if Britain had its way, the EU would have still been called the "Common Market", as it was in the 1970s.
And for the overwhelming majority of the Brits, there are few things which the EU can do better than their government in London; unlike almost any other nation in Europe, the Brits do not believe that the EU is a necessity, but merely view it as a burden which, at best, should be endured.
The result is that all British political parties have suffered from euroscepticism. Decades ago, it was the Labour Party which tore itself apart over Europe; today, it is the turn of the ruling Conservatives to do so. Hence, the referendum over EU membership which the Labour Party organised back in 1975 and the referendum which the current Conservative government plans for June have an identical purpose: they are not intended as a verdict on Europe, but are designed only to paper over domestic political cracks in the United Kingdom.
Nobody in London should be under any illusion that this game can continue for ever, and that Europe will get used to Britain's peculiar exceptionalism. For, if the British vote to stay in the EU in June but then start creating difficulties again, they should not be surprised if the consensus among their allies is to tell these pesky islanders that they should seek their fate elsewhere.
In theory, the example of the first EU referendum is encouraging for Prime Minister David Cameron today. When Harold Wilson, the then Prime Minister, ordered the referendum in early 1975, opinion polls indicated that two-thirds of the electorate intended to vote against continued EU membership. But when the ballots closed on June 5, 1975, no less than 67 per cent of voters were persuaded by campaigning politicians that Britain should stay in Europe.
Still, comparisons with 1975 are misleading. The EU at that time had little impact on ordinary lives, so it was easier to make the case for Britain to stay in Europe, but today EU regulations are everywhere. Britain at that time was a nation suffering from low esteem and poor economic growth so had nowhere to go; today, it is one of Europe's best-performing and most dynamic economies with global aspirations. China and the rest of Asia were not considered major players at that time; today, their rise allows anti-EU campaigners to argue that by staying in Europe, Britain is merely siding with history's losers.
Furthermore, the subject of migration, currently one of Europe's most toxic political issues, was entirely absent in the 1975 referendum; most British leaders at that time worried about losing British workers to "the Continent", rather than about accommodating millions coming in.
And four decades ago, what politicians said mattered; voters respected authority and took seriously recommendations from government ministers. Today, however, voters relish defying authority; one of the most grievous mistakes Mr Cameron can make is to stuff the pro-EU campaign with establishment figures who are guaranteed to turn people off.
Mr Cameron is aware of these pitfalls. By concluding what he claims to be a "special deal" with Europe, which allows Britain to pay less in welfare support to incoming EU migrants as well as gain protection from further integration efforts, he believes that he will succeed in taking the sting out of the anti-EU campaigners.
He may be right. For the moment, the anti-EU campaign is badly led and badly organised. It includes right-wingers and dreamers about the resurrection of the old British Empire, as well as extreme left-wingers who view the EU as the last remaining obstacle to the construction of the eventual "Socialist Paradise".
But it will be a mistake for Mr Cameron to dismiss the anti-EU campaign as a collection of crackpots.
For, with up to a fifth of the electorate still undecided, the public could be swayed in either direction. And it would be enough for Europe to be hit by another major wave of migrants from the Middle East, similar to the estimated one million who poured into Europe last year, for the entire referendum debate to be overturned; if the EU comes to be associated with hordes of migrants, the referendum will be lost by the pro-Europeans. That, after all, is why the British government has rushed to hold the ballot in June, well before the summer season when refugee pressures are at their highest.
The biggest worry for the pro-Europeans is that they seem unable to articulate a positive case for the EU; their entire campaign is based on negative messages, on warning the public that, should it vote to leave the EU, Britain will face grave economic disruption. The scare tactic may work, just as it had worked in a 2014 referendum in which voters in Scotland rejected the option of independence from the United Kingdom mainly because they feared the economic consequences.
But winning through fear settles nothing: many Scots feel they were "cheated" of independence, and are already demanding another chance to vote on the matter. They may get it sooner than they think, if the people of Britain as a whole vote to leave the EU in the June referendum. For then, another Scottish vote on independence is inevitable, and the break-up of the United Kingdom will become probable.
It was largely in order to avoid such dire consequences that Britain's European allies bent over backwards to accommodate, yet again, peculiar demands from London. Europe's leaders will also keep quiet, though with gritted teeth, in the months to come as abuse is heaped upon them and their countries during Britain's referendum campaign.
But nobody in London should be under any illusion that this game can continue for ever, and that Europe will get used to Britain's peculiar exceptionalism. For, if the British vote to stay in the EU in June but then start creating difficulties again, they should not be surprised if the consensus among their allies is to tell these pesky islanders that they should seek their fate elsewhere.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'Britain - the EU's reluctant bride'. Print Edition | Subscribe
We have been experiencing some problems with subscriber log-ins and apologise for the inconvenience caused. Until we resolve the issues, subscribers need not log in to access ST Digital articles. But a log-in is still required for our PDFs.