So David Cameron has – yet again – promised the British people a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, should they elect him prime minister next year. And it seems he would get a lot of support for a ‘No’ campaign.
Maybe I should not be too surprised about the aggressive euroscepticism of the British Conservatives in a country where you can still buy “stamps for Europe” at the Post Office, where university language departments are closing faster than car plants, and where the Continent (with a capital “C”) seems sometimes further off than the US or Australia.
But what really worries me, is this: what is Britain going to do when everybody else has agreed on European reform and the little islanders with PM Cameron no longer get invited to the parties and “Europe” decides to do its own thing without asking them?
Of course, a British ‘No’ vote in a referendum could make the whole Lisbon project fail. But it wouldn’t stop the others from working together and from resenting the British for their stubborn refusal to join in with the fun.
As Horst Bacia writes in the German conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the Tories might not be doing themselves a favour with a referendum. In fact, says Bacia, “Secretly Cameron can only be hoping that he won’t have to keep his promise. If the UK toppled the Treaty it had already ratified it would be an affront to other member states and Prime Minister Cameron wouldn’t have an easy start with his fellow heads of state and government.” So things are now up to Czech President Václav Klaus. Should he “bow to the pressure of circumstances and sign the treaty (albeit unwillingly), so that it comes into force this year, Cameron would be out of the wood.”
The liberal daily The Irish Times even thinks that far from helping them win the next general elections the Tories’ euroscepticism might end up distancing them from the electorate: “For the Tories to make the issue a central plank of their election campaign might well be to send out the message that they do not share the electorate’s sense of priorities, whatever about their values. And that therefore, as Labour will try to show, they are essentially the unreformed ideological party of old, not the pragmatic, modern, centrist New Tories that leader David Cameron is so keen to project.”
Maybe, however, one should just have more faith in the people of Britain and grant them a referendum. As the Hungarian daily Népszava argues, most people make the right decision after considering all the information available, as could be seen in the case of Ireland.
“The question today is less why the Irish have now said ‘Yes’ to the Treaty of Lisbon, but why they said ‘No’ in June last year,” the paper writes. “And the answer is not lastly because the Irish people didn’t know what they were voting on.” Even most politicians had not read the Treaty back then. “Under such circumstances the first referendum made no sense at all,” Népszava argues. For “Everyone knows that popular ignorance opens the door wide for demagogues, and they seized the opportunity that time too.” But after last weekend’s decision “we shouldn’t be so afraid of referendums.” The people might not be “infallible”, according to the paper, but “when they are sufficiently well-informed they generally make good decisions.”
So let the British make up their own minds, let them consider all the options, show them the benefits and possible drawbacks of an EU constitution. They might even need a second go. But they will eventually come round, if only because they will see that it is better to have friends in times of crisis than to have none. It worked for the Irish.
And then there’s always a chance that the real value of Sterling will reveal itself lurching the sceptical British into the reciprocal arms of the Europeans.