quinta-feira, 25 de junho de 2015

Britain would not survive a vote for Brexit

Promising a referendum on Britain’s place in Europe was always a rash gamble — a tactical swerve blind to the strategic consequences. The stakes have risen. The rest of Europe does not want to see the Brits depart, but the EU would muddle on. For the UK, the choice has become existential. If Britain leaves Europe, Scotland will leave Britain. The union of the United Kingdom would not long survive Brexit.

The referendum was offered to appease troublesome eurosceptics in David Cameron’s Conservative party. Some hope. There are signs the prime minister has begun to appreciate what is at stake. Never mind talk that he may be remembered as the leader who split his own party, or as the architect of Britain’s retreat from its own continent. History will be even less kind if it records that a device to quell a Tory rebellion about Europe led to the unravelling of England’s union with Scotland.

Mr Cameron’s government has lowered its sights accordingly. When Philip Hammond toured European capitals before the May election 25 of his 27 counterparts told the British foreign secretary that they would not rewrite the basic texts of the EU to accommodate British exceptionalism.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is particularly insistent that the Union’s organising “acquis” is sacrosanct. So the prime minister’s pre-election promise of “full-on treaty change” has made way for a more modest set of demands.

Mr Cameron has struck an emollient pose in his own post-election journey around EU chancelleries. What has emerged is a careful choreography for the negotiating process. As he explained it to Ms Merkel, the plan is to avoid undue acrimony and, for the most part, to keep the nitty gritty of negotiations low key and under wraps.

The prime minister will stick to generalities at this week’s Brussels summit. His favourite refrain speaks of a “reformed Europe”, whatever that means. He wants an opt-out from the (never defined) treaty aspiration of ever closer union of the peoples of Europe, safeguards for the City of London against eurozone caucusing, and a motherhood-and-apple-pie declaration that Europe is about competition rather than regulation. Finally, he is asking for leeway to restrict in-work benefits paid to workers from the rest of the EU.

This last demand has become totemic — much as market access for New Zealand’s butter defined the then Labour government’s renegotiation in 1975. Now as then, the real significance of the issue is in inverse proportion to the heat generated. Ask officials precisely how many hard-working Polish plumbers or Portuguese nurses receive such benefits and you get an embarrassed silence.

At some stage there has to be a public fight, particularly with the French. But if all goes to plan — and, like all plans, this one could go wrong — the name-calling can be deferred until the December EU summit. Mr Cameron would then emerge triumphant in the early hours of the morning clutching a list of concessions “won” from Britain’s EU partners. Game, set and match, the then prime minister John Major declared after he secured an opt-out from the Maastricht treaty in 1991. Perhaps Mr Cameron will claim reform in our time?

Nothing on the table, of course, amounts to a fundamental shift in the nature of Britain’s relationship with the EU, a point already being made by hardline eurosceptics on the Tory backbenches.

For the moment, though, the government and the sceptics both find the pretence convenient. Mr Cameron can promise change and the out camp can feign loyalty while setting up a series of impossible hurdles. When the sceptics demand a British veto over all EU legislation it is fairly plain they are willing the prime minister to stumble.

The fundamental asymmetry in the negotiations presents a problem. Much as his partners want to keep Britain in, they also know he has more to lose from failure. It is well understood in Berlin that Mr Cameron cannot return from negotiations admitting defeat. When last did a government call a referendum and then ask the people to vote No?

Scotland further amplifies the weakness of the British bargaining position. By winning 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats at Westminster — the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have one each — the Scottish National party has shrugged off its defeat in last year’s independence referendum. The nationalists look set also to hold on to power in next year’s elections for the Scottish parliament. Who said referendums settle things?

True, Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader and Scotland’s first minister, has been cautious about seeking an early re-run of the independence vote: there are still a fair number of Scots happy to vote SNP for Holyrood or Westminister who balk at the idea of independence.

Everything, though, would change if Britain decided to leave Europe — the more so if, as seems quite likely, the overall No vote combined English rejection with a Scottish preference to stay in the EU. Even Scotland’s staunchest unionists admit that their cause would be lost in such circumstances.

So there you have it. A renegotiation that promises to change nothing very much at all in Britain’s relationship with the EU followed by a referendum that, were it to go wrong, would see the UK break itself into pieces even as it detached itself from its own continent. Still, Little Englanders and Scottish separatists would have something to cheer.

Philip Stephens

Fonte: FT