The issues behind Britain’s 23 June referendum on membership of the European Union can be viewed on three different levels. The poll will calibrate child benefit for continental workers in UK restaurants, factories and building sites. It will determine whether Europe remains strong, stable and secure. And it will decide whether Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, becomes the next British prime minister.
Seen from this angle, voting in favour of the UK staying in suddenly becomes a lot easier. I found Johnson’s decision announced on Sunday to join the ‘out’ campaign not surprising but shocking.
Johnson, a man for whom the words ‘maverick’ and ‘opportunist’ could have been coined, has long hurled invective at the EU (some elements justified, others clownish mud-slinging). Yet I thought that, given the rare opportunity of taking a serious decision on an important matter, Johnson might give priority to his Conservative party and his country, rather than his political career.
This seems not to have been the case. Yet, if Cameron’s legendary luck holds, the mayor’s decision to oppose the prime minister may end up helping Britain – and, in the longer run, even the Conservative party – and also terminally damaging Johnson’s hopes of mainstream political office.
There are three reasons why Cameron can seek solace. First, the prime minister, who spent time in public relations before he entered politics, is often thought of as lacking any overriding beliefs. Groucho Marx’s maxim comes to mind: ‘Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others.’ Yet compared with Johnson’s naked solipsism the British prime minister now appears to display the integrity of a Mahatma Gandhi and the forbearance of a Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Thanks to the mayor of London’s desire for self-aggrandisement, Cameron can start the campaign girded in the sash of statesmanship.
Second, Cameron and the Whitehall diplomatic machine have done reasonably well in forging ‘special status’ for the UK within the EU. No one ever claimed that, in the three years since Cameron in January 2013 set out his desire for a referendum, the EU would be fundamentally reformed. However, Britain has made good progress in helping to secure – as he put it then – ‘a more flexible, adaptable and open European Union’. A lot will depend on making watertight the promised treaty-type language to enshrine British companies’ rights within the single market outside the euro. But in its aim to make the EU more competitive, effective and democratic, the UK has won support not just from Germany but from most of the EU’s better performing countries, within and outside the single currency.
Third, the international tide backs Cameron and the ‘in’ campaign. Since 2013, Cameron’s referendum tactic – initially a (largely failed) device to defuse Conservative party dissent – has taken on deeper resonance. As a result of sabre-rattling by Russia, chaos in the Middle East, and Europe’s economic malaise and migration upheavals, Britain’s membership has much larger implications for international security and the global economy. A No decision would be a distraction for Britain and a disaster for Europe. It would spell dislocation and failure for the rest of the world.
European politicians say they want the euro area to become more integrated, a process from which the UK would opt out and which is anyway unlikely to happen rapidly. If, as I hope, the referendum results in a Yes, the UK will stay in an EU that will be stuck in awkward limbo between cohesion and disintegration. Although this will be unsatisfactory, it’s preferable to the alternative of leaving altogether – which could precipitate at least partial dismemberment of the EU, with which Britain carries out half its international trade. For these somewhat negative reasons, the June vote is likely to be Yes. When the dust has settled, Johnson’s move will be viewed as having strengthened that prospect.