David Cameron has this policy which is that he's offering an in/out EU referendum after he's negotiated some reforms to its treaties and ways of working. This is a terrible idea for all sorts of reasons. Let me say why.
First, I should be clear: I'm in favour of staying in the EU, reformed or unreformed. Of course, we'd all like it to be reformed, if by reformed we mean 'better'. So 'staying in a reformed EU' sounds like a good slogan. But it's not good if it means an EU where there are no barriers to money, goods and services but there are huge barriers to the movement of people. I don't want to be in an EU where a wax replica of me has more freedom of movement than I do.
But this policy is a typical example of Cameron's chronic short-termism. How did it come about? In the middle of the last parliament, with UKIP really hitting the Tories in the polls, it was Cameron's attempt to shore up his support. He did this by kicking the can down the road; promising an EU referendum in the next parliament. He couldn't do it in the last parliament, I guess, because the Lib Dems wouldn't have let him. So he promised it for the next one. I guess he thought he probably wouldn't get in or he'd be in coalition with the Lib Dems again and wouldn't have to act on it.
But now we're further down the road and here's the can. We have a referendum looming at some point in the next two years. This is going to be a nightmare as it is, because the press will be full of scare stories about EU bureaucracy and all the everyday racists are going to be vox popping their way into our brains. It's going to be Idiot Hour for the next two years.
And to add stupid to stupid, Cameron's also made this meaningless promise about getting reforms. Well, maybe he will get some reforms. Actually, having gained this surprise majority means he's got a pretty good mandate to demand serious reforms from the EU. Whatever they say, the EU don't want us to leave, so we probably have quite a bit of leverage at the moment.
But still, what kind of reforms are we realistically going to get? Surely there is not the slightest chance of the EU tearing up the fundamental principle of the free movement of labour? There may be a bit of tinkering around welfare rights, but they won't be able to stop EU citizens coming here. And quite right too. The problem for Cameron is that clear and evident limits to immigration are surely the only reform that will dent the UKIP-led support for leaving the EU.
Which means that Cameron will probably come back from these negotiations with a few vague promises of reform, some of them technical and difficult to intuitively grasp. The EU's enemies will be able to scorn them very easily and it will be hard for Cameron to say 'I now recommend staying in this reformed EU' because there will be confusion and doubt over whether there have been any reforms at all.
I am fairly confident that the UK will vote to stay in. Fairly confident. But then I was fairly confident there'd be a hung parliament so what do I know? I'm concerned that the pro-EU campaign will suffer from the same lack of imagination as the No campaign in Scotland, with the same resort to scare stories and strategy of fear. Maybe this is the fate of all campaigns to preserve the status quo. But they have to start thinking now. It cannot be led by business. It should not be led by the usual faces in the political class. It can't be a matter of a few celebs. It must not be dry economics.
We need to celebrate the cultural and philosophical vision behind the EU from the moment it was founded, that dream of a great continent coming together to heal what has divided us and celebrate what connects us, building bridges, welcoming our neighbours, learning from each other. If we can sell a few more things to each other, great, that's a bonus, but it's this glimpse of common humanity, cultural dialogue and civil rights that is at the heart of the ongoing EU project, which makes it all the more infuriating that Cameron's habitual short-termism has put it all at risk.