British Eurosceptics see chance for EU referendum
by our secret columnist in Brussels
A Greek exit from the euro or Croatia's imminent EU membership could provide opportunities for British Eurosceptics to lobby for the referendum on the UK's place in Europe that they so desire, writes Schadenfreude
In back rooms, cunning plans are being worked on. There is nothing in the European Union treaties about a country leaving the eurozone – if Greece goes there will have to be an amendment. However, would not imply any transfer of competences from member states to the institutions of the EU. Therefore, it would not trigger a referendum in the United Kingdom, under the terms of the 2011 act that amended the European Communities Act through which Britain joined the bloc in 1973.
But a referendum could be called by popular demand. Conservative arch- Eurosceptics reckon that any talk of an amending treaty should lead to a vote, which would not be about what is happening to Greece but about whether the UK should leave the EU. According to this emerging plan Prime Minister David Cameron should complete the task he began last December and demand a price for agreeing that there should be a new treaty. He should stand up for the safeguards he failed to get then.
These should include, first, a renewal of the opt-out from the social contract that former prime minister John Major obtained in Maastricht with his legendary "game, set and match", but which Tony Blair's government later cancelled. Second, withdrawal from the working time directive, which pretended to be about health and safety rather than social welfare. And third, exemption from any new financial regulation that Britain does not want. There would be more. If other member states demur: no new treaty or amendment.
There is a way for the rest of the EU to get round a British blockage. Instead of a new treaty there could be a new international agreement like the compact on stability that escaped Cameron's 'veto'. Hypothetically it could say, on behalf of the eurozone-plus, that Greece is no longer a member. One of the beauties of this method is that this does not need the agreement of all the parties, rather 12 ratifications are enough. The lawyers would have field days debating whether an EU treaty could be thus circumvented.
But there is another chance for Conservative Europhobia to queer the pitch. Croatia is joining the EU. Its membership has to be ratified by all existing members. Cameron could take Croatian membership hostage by refusing to ratify unless there is agreement on his safeguards. He could spell out his list. It would not be kosher, but the British government does not behave as if it is taking part in a European popularity contest.
If there is a cry of foul play the government can say that it will consult the will of the people and proceed to a referendum – which would not be about old or new treaties or about Croatia, but about whether Britain should stay in. The only risk is that if it were a bluff somebody might call it.
A history lesson for Britain's 'amnesiac' Eurosceptics
British Eurosceptics are fond of arguing that when the UK joined the European Economic Community there was no warning that the bloc had political as well as economic implications. Pure nonsense, writes our secret columnist