Why the EU referendum won't be the final say on the UK leaving Europe

“I’m not pushing for a deal tonight, I’m pushing for real momentum so we can get this deal done”, said David Cameron on arrival in Brussels on Thursday afternoon, and that seems to be the limit of British ambitions for this meeting. A deal is still a long way off, with the summit in February the next, best hope.

The history of this renegotiation process is likely to be written as a line of retreats as long as Napoleon’s long march from Moscow in the winter of 1812.

What was once billed as a ‘fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU’ has now come down to a squabble about the rights of EU migrants to get tax-credits on arrival. And even there, British demands are being almost unanimously rejected.

It’s worth looking back to what David Cameron said he wanted as his much vaunted ‘Bloomberg Speech’ back in 2013. He was going to reclaim control of social and employment laws; take an axe to the working-time directive; opt out of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. And all secured by changes to the EU treaties that would prevent the European Court from whittling away at British opt-outs in future.

All of the above paragraph has now been abandoned. Now the demands are just four: a commitment to deregulation (again); a promise that further moves towards integration would not include the UK; ‘protection’ for those countries not using the Euro against decisions made by those who are; and those pesky migrant benefits.

Treaty change? Forget it. Whatever Cameron comes home with, UK voters are going to have to take it on trust.

So when EU leaders spoke today of the need for compromise, what they meant was that even this hugely reduced list of British demands are going to have to be watered-down substantially if there’s to be a deal, particularly the last one.

“Unacceptable”, Chancellor Merkel called the demand that EU migrants wait four years for in-work benefits. Does Downing Street get any credit at this stage for the demands already long-abandoned? None.

Angela Merkel called the demand that EU migrants wait four years for in-work benefits Credit: Reuters

It may be that the other 27 are making a perfectly rational calculation that UK voters are never going to actually vote for Brexit, so there’s no need to give the British anything substantial. They may well be right.

Polls show that opinion is evenly divided in Britain at this stage, but polls said the same thing in the run up to the last Brexit vote in 1975, and that went 2-1 in favour of staying in.

But what if they are wrong and it turns out the British really do want to leave? What then? Well a short study of European referendums will give you the answer.

What happens is that it is only after a referendum defeat that there are real negotiations and real concessions, ahead of an inevitable re-vote. A ‘No’ vote has always been subjected to a second vote, and will anyone in any European capital consider a British vote to leave to be the final word?

Perhaps this is why, for all the talk of the disaster Brexit would be for the European project, for all that Germany and Northern Europe would dread being outvoted for evermore by a Southern European bloc, they all think that the real moment of decision is not in 2016/17, but a year or two after that.