The mood among Cameron’s counterparts in the European Council – the heads of state and government of the EU’s 28 member states – is largely resentful and unsympathetic. None of them are truly expecting the UK to vote to leave, but they deeply resent the distraction that this campaign has brought to EU business. After all, it’s not as though Brussels is lacking crises to manage. Yet here we are again, watching as the UK indulges in a protracted campaign which is essentially seen as an internal Tory battle.
What the Prime Minister’s fellow leaders fear most is the stirring of anti-EU sentiment in their own countries. Of course, some EU states have already witnessed the rise of eurosceptic movements and parties – Lega Nord in Italy, for example, or AFD in Germany. But the concern is that this vote will embolden those who would wish to loosen or unpick the project.
If Britain stays in, expect several governments to come under pressure – or exert pressure – to negotiate their own privileges within the current treaty framework. Already we have seen countries such as Slovakia, Hungary and Poland resisting the imposition of compulsory quotas of migrants, and thereby sticking two fingers up to the EU. A referendum in Hungary on this issue is likely to be a trigger for the right-wing government in Budapest to consider a broader settlement of niggles.
And if Britain tumbles out of the EU, expect other countries to flirt with referendums of their own – perhaps not on membership itself, but on aspects of it (as the Hungarians are doing, supra). Doom- mongers believe a Brexit would deliver a fatal blow to the EU project as nationalist and protectionist forces tear apart its raison d’être. Optimists think Brexit would be such a shock, and such a slap in the face to the complacent politicians who thought it would never happen, that it could actually draw the disparate political currents within Europe closer together.
But back to Cameron, and his fraught relationship with the EU. One of the principal concerns in Brussels is that Cameron is unconvincing as a champion of Britain’s membership – primarily because he is unconvinced (and his former chief thinker Steve Hilton went even further by suggesting that Cameron the backbencher would be Out).
For many of his fellow leaders, even those with a euro-realist bent, Cameron’s cardinal sin was to sever the link between the Conservatives and the wider European centre-right European People’s Party. That he promised to do this immediately, proposing unilateral action in a way not even Iain Duncan Smith or David Davis advocated (and they are both Outers) marked him out as at best an impressionable ingenué with bad judgment and at worst an anti-European working towards secession.
This suspicion of Cameron has haunted his dealings with Europe ever since. In opposition he promised to hold a retrospective referendum on the Lisbon treaty, but then blamed the Lib Dems for his inability to deliver on that ‘cast-iron’ guarantee in government. He did himself no favours by vetoing a proposed treaty on eurozone governance in 2011. And his implacable opposition to Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission exposed his strategic ineptitude. No wonder Juncker is in no mood to accommodate the UK if it votes to leave.
But the really notable element of Cameron’s approach is the fact that for almost six years as Prime Minister, he struggled to find anything good to say about the EU – yet is now singing its praises as the UK’s only salvation. His critics believe that if Cameron had been prepared since 2010 to make a solid, low-key but persistent case for British membership through tangible, easily understandable examples, the Leave campaign would be nowhere. But then Cameron never really engaged with the Scottish referendum campaign either, until it was almost too late.
And unimportant though it may seem, Cameron has annoyed his fellow leaders by messing up their diaries. He called the referendum on 23 June apparently without regard to the fact that an EU summit was due to start that very day. It then must have dawned on Cameron that conducting that summit on the day Britain votes to leave the EU would not exactly endear him to his counterparts, or soothe their already frayed nerves. So the summit was moved to the next week. Not a big issue, but not diplomatic either.
The assumption in Brussels is that Cameron would not last 24 hours in Downing Street if the vote goes against him. But even if he succeeds, the Prime Minister will probably be considered something of a lame duck. This bodes ill for the UK presidency of the EU, which will cover the latter half of 2017.
Maybe Cameron won’t stay in the job that long, but he may feel that seeing through the presidency, and using it to maintain the momentum towards reform that this referendum has hopefully ignited, will be the valedictory chapter of his political career. Assuming Westminster remains tied to fixed-term parliaments, that would give his successor more than two years to bed down.
If the result is clear-cut, even decisive, expect Cameron to be at the vanguard of new moves to reform the Lisbon treaty over the following 18 months. Amending the treaties is a complicated and lengthy task, but starting this process, perhaps during the UK presidency, could produce a revision that would be the centrepiece of the European Parliament elections in 2019 – both as a platform for parties and as a subject of national referenda.
We can assume that the high-water mark of European integration has been and gone, so any new treaty would seek to put the Union on a more flexible footing – and perhaps even introduce the idea of different depths of membership, thereby enabling non-EU countries like Ukraine and Turkey to anchor themselves to the EU’s single market without signing up to the euro and the greater political and fiscal integration that any new treaty would necessarily demand of eurozone members.
Of course, all of this is conjecture. If there is one thing above all that can be said about the effect of this referendum in the rest of Europe, it is that uncertainty and instability will reign for some time to come, whatever the result. Previously at such moments in the EU’s evolution, member states look to the hard- headed, pragmatic engagement of one country in particular – Britain – to resolve conflicts. It remains to be seen if Britain will ever be able to fully regain this reputation and role as an EU powerbroker after this divisive and dangerous vote.
With 22 days to go until the UK votes, the mood in Brussels is tense.